Originating Discovery

Universities strengthen industry bonds

There is a common perception that much of the research produced by academia dies in academia without ever having any practical real world application. This dynamic is now changing. America has immeasurable talent coming from its universities and, in recent years, the life sciences industry has looked to tap academia to help develop scientific breakthroughs that can be leveraged to achieve their commercial goals. Conversely, universities find industry partnerships valuable because they help advance their capacity to conduct high quality research, which can be an influential factor in attracting high level academic talent and top tier students. In analyzing each of the respective biopharmaceutical clusters throughout the US, universities are their backbone: MIT, Harvard and Northeastern University in the Boston-Cambridge areas, Stanford and Cal Berkeley in Silicon Valley, Princeton and Rutgers in New Jersey, Upenn and Temple in Philadelphia, Columbia and NYU in New York and the Research Triangle has North Carolina State, Duke and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Each of these universities is world class and plays an integral role in geographically anchoring the ecosystem.

While Universities remain fundamentally about teaching, research and service, tech transfer and commercialization are often seen as the fourth leg economic development part of their missions. Despite this additional leg growing in importance, ultimately, everything a university does revolves around its primary missions. Lesley Millar-Nicholson, director of MIT’s Technology Licensing Office, which sees 800 new ideas coming in the door each year, commented: “Some of it is going to translate into commercial opportunity, but the key thing for universities is that they can invest in areas that large corporations typically do not. Increasingly you see corporations coming to universities or working in public-private partnerships to advance ideas that they might have done themselves in prior years.”

Princeton University’s Elizabeth Adams, director of their office of Research and Project Administration, expanded on this notion of what universities can do that corporations cannot, pointing to the grant money that universities receive from government bodies. She asserts: “Investing in basic research typically does not make sense for a business. However, it makes complete sense for universities and government to do. Government and university investments in basic science have birthed entire industries that have created millions of jobs. These investments are one of the reasons why the US is a leader in technologies of the future. The private and public sectors working together are exceptionally powerful in the US, and it provides us a competitive advantage.”


As a result of this transfer of risk, the relationship between venture firms and universities has also evolved in recent years. Anthony Williams, new ventures associate at the office of technology licensing, Princeton University, reasons that this reflects a desire on the part of VCs to get in very early, find a platform technology that is exciting, and build the company from the ground up, working with university researchers. In that case there is more value to be captured from the VC’s perspective. He remarked: “Previously we would have been furiously trying to get these assets up to IND phase: Beg, borrow and steal to get a few dollars in to do the next set of experiments to get to the point where we might be able to attract a VC to come and look at some of our technologies. Now, we are seeing a shift… VCs recognize that it is the people that are doing the brilliant science and have the ideas that are going to be the ones that develop the next game-changing technology.”

Evidence of this shift was easy to come by over the past year, as Princeton saw its biggest ever seed round in the life sciences for Nereid Therapeutics, a company Professor Cliff Brangwynne, a recent MacArthur Fellow known for his groundbreaking work in cell biology, founded alongside Apple Tree Partners, who made a US$50 million funding commitment. Coleen Burrus, director of corporate engagement and foundation relations at Princeton, added: “We are seeing the results of Princeton investing substantial resources to build the infrastructure to assist faculty interested in collaborating with industry and starting companies. The university has been very focused on this for the past six years, and we are now seeing the results of this in a big way.”

“It is not all about money in university-industry relationships. Sometimes it is about the exchange of people, materials, confidential information or large data sets, which can be just as valuable as, or more valuable than, an exchange of money. In particular, at Princeton we are seeing an explosion of data exchange and use agreements. Data is the new IP, and it is more and more a focus of university agreements with industry.”

Elizabeth Adams, Director, Office of Research and Project Administration, Princeton University

Although VC dollars are helpful, the success of a university spinout can often be strongly correlated to the robustness of the broader ecosystem it exists within. MIT, for example, relies heavily on partnerships with its surrounding ecosystem. These include other universities, hospitals and corporate partners. “Many great ideas come out of MIT, but we cannot translate them without help. For the university, it is about pulling together the smarts, intellect and funding, and then finding the right partners to help translate it. One of the strengths of MIT is this ecosystem that enables entrepreneurship and translational research to occur,” Lesley Millar-Nicholson detailed.

When this process of translating science into technology works well it is an undeniable boon for society and each of the respective clusters. It creates economic dynamism with an abundance of new jobs ultimately devoted to bringing world-class medicines to patients. MIT spins out over 32 startup companies per year approximately, and about 358 of those companies remain alive today. Among them are a who’s who list of the top biotech companies in existence. Editas, one of the leading gene editing companies was licensed through the Broad Institute, Beam Therapeutics had a very successful IPO in 2020, Taris Biomedical, which focused on bladder cancer, was bought by JNJ last year, and Alnylam continues to bring innovation to the world through its RNAi technology.

The success of these companies illustrates that there are billions of dollars stuck in professors’ minds around this world that can be tapped into. However, it is a long road toward commercialization, one that only a few clusters around the world have yet to figure out.

Image courtesy of CordenPharma - Sterile Injectable Drug Product Manufacturing