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U-M Life Sciences Institute bridges "Valley of Death" with new fund

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—The University of Michigan's Life Sciences Institute is launching a novel program to shepherd promising biomedical discoveries from the lab bench to the marketplace.

Called the Innovation Partnership, it uses philanthropic gifts to bridge the critical funding gap ? known to biomedical researchers and venture capitalists as the Valley of Death?between laboratory discovery and commercialization.

More than $1.6 million has been raised to date for the Innovation Partnership. The goal is to raise $10 million over the next five years to support LSI discoveries related to neurodegenerative diseases, diabetes and cancer.

"The University of Michigan established the Life Sciences Institute to promote collaborative research focused on the most pressing problems in human health," said U-M President Mary Sue Coleman. "Now the Institute is taking a leadership role not only in scientific discovery but in building a pipeline from the lab to life-saving medical therapies."

The Valley of Death is the funding gap that arises after federal basic-science support ends and before investors are willing to commit to a promising discovery.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health funds much of the basic biomedical research at LSI and at universities across the country. And once researchers can reliably show that a discovery has immediate applications, commercial investors step in.

But finding the "gap funds" needed to establish a new discovery's commercial viability can be a daunting challenge. Investors who once filled that void have reduced their support in recent years.

Enter the LSI Innovation Partnership.

"There is a huge need to fund research activities after NIH funding typically stops and before venture capitalists typically begin," said Paul Meister, chief executive officer and co-founder of Liberty Lane Partners, a private investment firm. Meister co-chairs LSI's external advisory board and is former vice chairman of Fisher Scientific International.

"Philanthropy is the only way to fill this gap. Without this kind of solution, a lot of good ideas would never make it to commercial fruition," Meister said.

Innovation Partnership proposals will be evaluated by a committee comprised of venture capitalists and business executives with experience in managing scientific enterprises. Priority will be given to proposals that address a critical medical need and which appear to have high commercialization potential.

The first Innovation Partnership research awards?in the range of $200,000 to $500,000 apiece?are expected by year's end. LSI will provide lab space, equipment and scientific support equivalent to a 50 percent-or-more match on donor-provided funds.

"The Partnership represents the launch of what I see as the next chapter of the LSI," said Director Alan Saltiel.

"In our first five years we've recruited a spectacular faculty from a broad range of biomedical disciplines, and we've sparked some innovative collaborative discoveries that I'm confident would not have occurred without the environment of the LSI," Saltiel said.

"The Partnership brings to our faculty both the funds and the tool kit to take those discoveries to the next level," he said.

Donors to the fund include all members of LSI's Leadership Council, a distinguished group of scientific and business leaders.

"Although there are plenty of breakthroughs coming out of university biology programs across the country, there isn't enough money to fund all the good ones," said Dr. Jim Niedel, a Leadership Council member and managing director of New Leaf Venture Partners, a healthcare venture investing firm.

"The Innovation Partnership is a way of bridging that gap," said Niedel, former chief science and technology officer at GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical.

LSI's interdisciplinary, collaborative approach to biomedical research should boost the odds that Innovation Partnership projects lead to commercially viable products, said Craig Parker, president of DCD Bioconsulting, chair of the LSI Leadership Council, and former biotech analyst for Lehman Brothers in San Francisco.

Moving a potentially useful biological discovery toward the marketplace requires input from specialists in many disciplines. In many cases, chemists must create analogs to natural compounds, then engineering techniques must be developed and tested to determine if they are scalable for commercial drug production.

LSI's 29 faculty members include chemists, biologists, geneticists, physiologists, computational biologists and leaders in other, related disciplines. The ability to draw on this diverse pool of expertise ? as well as the intellectual resources available at U-M's top-rated business, engineering, medicine, law and public health schools ? will provide an immeasurable level of support for Innovation Partnership-funded researchers.

"The Innovation Partnership is the logical next step for the Institute," Parker said. "Commercial application of these ideas requires teamwork, and that collaborative framework is already in place at LSI."

The exit goal for Innovation Partnership projects is a technology that can either be licensed to an existing entity, result in the formation of a start-up company, or continue down the path toward commercialization with support from other university, governmental or private-sector resources.

"This program is a great example of how philanthropy can fill the critical gaps in our research pipeline," said Dr. Tadataka Yamada, president of the global health program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, former chairman of research and discovery at GlaxoSmithKline, and a member of LSI's external advisory board.

Projects that are candidates for first-round funding include groundbreaking approaches for treating neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Huntington's, as well as especially aggressive and deadly cancers.

"The Partnership will enable a seamless transition from research into development," said Tufts University chemistry professor David Walt., a member of the LSI Leadership Council and co-founder of the biotechnology company Illumina.

"My guess is that it's going to be absolutely transformational for LSI," Walt said.


Candidate Projects for First-Round Funding