In some ways, professor Jim Norris’s cancer therapeutic start-up SphingoGene (see Page D3) is a case study of the Medical University of South Carolina’s tech transfer struggles.
Norris, an experienced biologist but a novice businessman, incorporated in 2006 amid what he said was a push at MUSC to commercialize basic science. But the company didn’t go anywhere.
“We’re a bunch of academics,” Norris explained last week. “We didn’t know ... what we were doing.”
Only in 2010, after a consultation with a life sciences lawyer in Raleigh, did Norris reincorporate in Delaware and license the molecules he discovered from the MUSC’s Foundation for Research and Development. Three years later, however, SphingoGene’s still in a holding pattern.
The company got a few government grants and had an office in the SCRA MUSC Innovation Center but was “kicked out” of the biotech incubator last summer to make way for a local publisher, Norris said, and he hasn’t yet been able to raise the private money needed to develop a cancer drug.
While other MUSC spinoffs, like Immunologix and CharlestonPharma, have had more success, Norris’ frustrations are representative.
To its credit, the university has acknowledged the issue and recently has taken a couple of concrete steps to increase the flow of discoveries “from bench to bedside,” as it were.
In August, MUSC hired Tom Finnegan, a veteran biotech entrepreneur and investor, as the director of its new Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurialism. Finnegan has been meeting with the university’s researchers and clinicians and promoted its budding technologies to out-of-state venture capitalists.
Earlier this year, the university created the Institute for Applied Neurosciences, an aspiring nonprofit accelerator that will partner with a yet-to-be-named company to speed commercialization.
“The focus of the IAN is on medical devices, in part because the cost of development is comparatively lower and because the regulatory process is easier and quicker to navigate,” MUSC President Ray Greenberg explained this month.
Heather Woolwine, an MUSC spokeswoman, said many of details of the IAN project are being finalized but that it is part of the university’s “full court press” to improve tech transfer.
It may be too late for Norris and SphingoGene, but the prognosis for MUSC is good.
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_ brendan.