Biomedical innovations can take a decade or more of ongoing research and development before they are ready to be used to treat patients. Even with funding and expert scientists, the most promising technologies can fail to go to market if entrepreneurs don’t have the experience or support to navigate the long and tedious drug development process.
A local resource is helping university-founded startups find success.
From a small lab space within the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Distinguished University Professor Vincent C.O. Njar, Ph.D., made an incredible discovery. Through his research, he developed novel small molecules with the potential to inhibit the growth of and treat breast cancer, with possible applications in dermatology and other types of cancer. Dr. Njar’s discovery could offer better outcomes for a range of patients.
To help clear the path to market, University of Maryland, Baltimore’s (UMB) New Ventures team worked with Dr. Njar to establish his startup, Isoprene Pharmaceuticals, Inc. The New Ventures program, run by a team with deep experience managing biotech companies from the ground up, identifies the most promising biomedical research and technology at UMB and provides tailored wrap-around support services to develop those inventions. The level of support varies and can take the form of technical and entrepreneurial advice, funding to validate and de-risk technologies, patent protection, licensing deals with industry partners or, in the case of startups, direct capital investments.
Isoprene is part of the most selective New Ventures initiative, in which the New Ventures team works alongside a UMB inventor to create and fully manage a startup around their technology. In the five years since the program was established, two companies have been created and fully managed — Living Pharma and SurgiGYN, both of which were acquired by leading biotech firms. Isoprene, established in 2018, is the third fully managed New Ventures company.
“We manage the earliest stages of turning a discovery into a product,” said Rana Quraishi, Ph.D., director of New Ventures. “Our expert team funnels talent, experience, project planning, funding, and more into extremely promising inventions, strengthening them and validating the discovery. UMB is dedicated to supporting entrepreneurial efforts, and has the necessary resources to help grow these ventures.”
"Our ability to fully support and even launch companies through the New Ventures program ensures that promising technology isn’t just languishing, waiting to be found."
“The New Ventures program has been critical for us, providing what we call the infrastructure of drug discovery and development,” said Dr. Njar.
Under the direction of the New Ventures team, Isoprene has taken critical steps towards commercialization.
“Through my research, I discovered anti-cancer small molecules, and at Isoprene, we picked a lead compound from these that we’re developing,” said Dr. Njar. “Our hope is to advance our lead compound towards a phase one clinical trial. Ultimately, we have to go through three clinical trials before our drug is approved for a particular class of patient.”
That hope is now one step closer to reality. With Dr. Quraishi’s guidance, Isoprene applied for and was awarded a $2 million Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Direct-to-Phase II grant. The two-year grant will fund Isoprene’s pre-clinical work, which will lead to human trials.
Isoprene’s recent success is exciting for Phil Robilotto, director of UM Ventures, Baltimore and an associate VP at UMB.
“Our ability to fully support and even launch companies through the New Ventures program ensures that promising technology isn’t just languishing, waiting to be found,” said Robilotto. “Prior to forming the New Ventures team, we couldn’t offer full company management services and had a very limited ability to help our startups find funding opportunities. We weren’t able to support our founders in the way we felt was necessary. The New Ventures team allows us to vet a technology before it’s licensed, increasing the number, quality, and longevity of startups that spin out of UMB.”
As the New Ventures program has grown, non-university lab space has become essential. The UM BioPark, the privately developed 14-acre research park on UMB’s downtown Baltimore campus, provided an ideal solution. The New Ventures team created and maintains a lab in the BioPark, providing the independent, fully equipped space a UMB startup needs after it licenses technology from the University.
Created as a natural extension of UMB’s entrepreneurial activities, the BioPark keeps UMB startups in Baltimore and close to established relationships and trusted resources. It also provides tenant companies with easy access to UMB’s renowned centers of excellence and expert scientists while placing leading global biotech firms next door to UMB.
Dr. Quraishi touts the BioPark’s thriving science community as a critical resource for entrepreneurs.
“There are a lot of reasons why biotech founders need to be in a scientific environment,” said Dr. Quraishi. “Maybe you need someone to help you understand the pharmacology of your molecules. Or maybe you need someone to help define your medical trials. The BioPark is teeming with scientific expertise and resources. For the New Ventures program and our faculty entrepreneurs, many of which still hold positions at UMB, this environment with immediate proximity to UMB is a crucial component to long-term success.”
Isoprene will use the New Ventures lab in the BioPark to advance their studies. The location will be helpful as they work closely with University physicians to design the clinical trial study.