Startup companies are all too familiar with the “valley of death,” which refers to the gap that lies between translating innovative technology from benchtop to actual clinical use and the ongoing need for funding. Accelerating technologies from idea to the market and helping entrepreneurs bridge roadblocks between academia and industry/investor interest is the aim of the UCLA Innovation Fund, part of UCLA’s Technology Development Group.
The group recently held a pitch competition where eight teams—selected from more than 100 applications from across campus—were given 30 minutes to detail their therapeutic technology currently in development in UCLA labs. They were vying for an infusion of approximately $200,000 each, which would be dedicated to advancing their project in order to further “de-risk” their work and increase attractiveness to the private sector.
Identifying promising technologies
Fogarty Innovation’s CTO Denise Zarins served on the advisory panel, along with an impressive and diverse group that represented companies and firms including Stryker, Lymo Ventures, MedTech Innovator, Kairos Ventures, J&J Innovation, Wakemaker Three-Sixty Health, W.L. Gore & Associates and UCSF Rosenman Institute.
“The UCLA Innovation Fund is specifically targeted at technologies on the university campus, and this competition is designed to address common roadblocks and help entrepreneurs reduce the risk of crossing that valley of death,” explained Matthew Savary, MD, principal of New Ventures and the UCLA Innovation Fund, where he manages the medtech vertical.
Denise was selected to be part of the panel based on her extensive experience with early-stage startups. The group helped weigh in on whether the research path as presented will be scientifically plausible and offered suggestions for where companies should pivot for a better chance at success. The panel then coached finalists through the pitching process to give them practice in thinking on their feet as their ideas were pressure tested.
“I reached out to Denise to be my technological expert and draw on her expertise from working in the early tech community and at Fogarty Innovation,” Matthew says.
These types of programs are crucial to feeding the funnel through the concept of basic science that can eventually be applied toward a therapy, Denise says. “A young company would likely find it difficult to do this type of early research outside of an academic environment given the challenge in securing seed money to fund it.”
In her view, what distinguishes this program from others she has seen is that the ideas come from any department on campus. While the idea has to be life sciences oriented, it’s not limited to a specific school, as the UCLA Innovation Fund is a collaboration between the technology development group, the school of medicine, the school of engineering and applied sciences dentistry, and the division of life sciences and physical sciences.
Putting companies on the path to success
Three teams were awarded up to $200,000 each and will be connected with outside mentors to help them advance their technology.
The winning projects were:
Sleep apnea device: This team is aiming to develop a non-invasive therapy to address a condition that is estimated to impact approximately 22 million Americans. The simple device goes in the ear and addresses both central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea.
Dermal fillers: Current technologies present a number of risks, given their particle size, and this product addresses those issues with its smaller size. They can also be used in the upper face, thus expanding the market, and studies to date show a more predictable outcome with less swelling and irritation.
Women’s hormone therapy device: While an estimated six million women in the U.S. seek estrogen therapy, current products are inconvenient. This combination biodegradable polymer and drug device can be self-placed and lasts up to 80 days. The team hopes that eventually it can be used with other drugs to treat additional conditions.
“I look forward to seeing how this project and the others will continue to evolve as they emerge from the concept stage to moving forward through development and testing, building a team, seeking funding and all the other elements necessary for a successful launch. It’s what we at Fogarty Innovation specialize in, so it was exciting to see these technologies in their initial stage. It was an honor to be part of this important process that helps drive ideas and potential solutions forward.”