Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Medical Device Launch Pad?

Whoops! - The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight

Is At It Again?

From MedCity News:

Not so fast, says U of M tech transfer chief

Forget “One Life to Live” or “As the World Turns.” If you want a real soap opera, look no farther than the University of Minnesota.

One week after MedCity News first reported that University Enterprise Laboratories (UEL) and the school’s medical device fellowship program were close to a deal to establish MDC Launch Pad, an incubator for companies created by the fellows, the university’s top tech transfer official is opposing the project.

In an interview with MedCity News, Jay Schrankler, director of the Office for Technology Commercialization (OTC) said he supports the overall concept of Launch Pad but doesn’t think it should be limited to the just one program at the university. Schrankler, who said he was not consulted on the project, said he’s meeting with UEL chair Paul Knapp next week to press his case.

Schrankler downplayed MDC Launch Pad as a very preliminary idea. UEL documents, which contained specific details on Launch Pad’s structure and financing, seem to indicate otherwise.

The latest dispute comes just a few weeks after Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-St. Paul), the chair of the House Biosciences Committee, threatened to privatize OTC if the school didn’t make enough progress in commercializing technologies. That prompted university vice president of research Tim Mulcahy to angrily dare legislators to fund technologies the school passes on.

What we’re witnessing is a good old fashioned turf battle. Schrankler won’t say it outright but I’m sure he’s not particularly happy that he didn’t know anything about Launch Pad. He does, after all, oversee tech transfer so one would naturally assume he would be in the loop. Heck, Schrankler even works out of the UEL building!

In truth, the UEL dust up reflects tension between OTC and the school’s Medical Device Center (MDC). Founded in 2008, the facility, located on the top floor of Shepherd Labs on SE Union Street in Minneapolis, was meant to serve as a hub for faculty, students, and companies to translate high-concept research into real companies and technologies.

MDC also launched the Innovation Fellowship Program to “produce the next generation of medical device entrepreneurs, innovators and leaders.” Ideally, the fellows, graduate students around the country with backgrounds in medicine, engineering and biosciences, would create companies from their work in the program.

However, OTC was heading towards a different direction. Schrankler and Doug Johnson, head of the Venture Center, responsible for spinning out start-ups, say the university should look beyond the region’s traditional focus on mechanical medical devices.

The school, they argued, should focus on cutting edge biomedical technologies with blockbuster potential like Doris Taylor’s work in stem cell therapies and regenerative medicine or a breakthrough drug that can keep patients suffering from catastrophic blood loss alive long enough to reach a hospital.

The university has launched a major campus wide initiative to boost its efforts to commercialize promising drugs developed by programs like Masonic Cancer Center, medical school, and the Institute for Therapeutics Discovery & Development at the College of Pharmacy

Take a look at the start-ups the university has spun off in recent years and you won’t see a whole lot of medical devices.

Schrankler himself admits things could be better between OTC and MDC.

“I will say this, we got off to a bit of a rocky start,” he said. However, the relationship has greatly improved in recent weeks, Schrankler said.

John Alexander, president of TC Angels, has been advising many of the medical device fellows. He praises their work and loves the idea of the MDC Launch Pad. In fact, the university should emulate the program for other technologies, he said.

Asked about how the relationship between OTC and MDC, Alexander replied diplomatically: “They are trying.”

But then he added: “I wish I understood what [OTC] is thinking sometimes.”

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