- Associated Press - Saturday, September 10, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Early animal testing of his innovative cancer immunotherapy treatment was promising.

Stephen Thorne, a University of Pittsburgh professor of immunology, wanted to push his therapy into clinical trials, a step that would make the treatment available to patients for the first time but cost millions of dollars.

“I realized that it was going to take many, many years,” Thorne said, lamenting how long it could take to accumulate the needed grants and funding to start manufacturing the treatment for clinical trials. “I really wanted to get this to the clinical phase more quickly.”

So Thorne, the university and Kurt Rote, a biotech entrepreneur from Cleveland with a background in biomedical engineering and an MBA, worked together to create Western Oncolytics, a Pitt spinoff company founded in 2014 that raised $2.5 million in less than a year, something it would have taken Thorne years to do in the university setting.

The company inked a co-development deal with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and is settling into a lab at Pitt’s Applied Research Center in Harmar to manufacture the therapy. It hopes to treat its first patient next year.

“Many years faster,” said Thorne, who took a leave of absence from Pitt to work at Western Oncolytics.

Prestige and revenue

Universities such as Pitt and Carnegie Mellon are great places to develop technological and medical advancements but not to commercialize them. Faculty, students and the universities depend on spinoff companies and licensing agreements to take the latest innovation from a lab in Oakland to market.

Faculty and students either develop startup companies to license the technology they have worked on at the universities or the university helps them find an existing company to license the product. The process brings advancements to market, creates prestige for the university and generates revenue. But, unlike the world of business, the bottom line isn’t the bottom line for university technology and advancements.

“It doesn’t really have a lot to do with the amount of money generated from it,” said Marc Malandro, director of Pitt’s Innovation Institute, which generated more than $100 million through more than 1,000 license agreements in the past 10 years. “First is trying to get products made from university research to market. … They want to see their work get out there to help.”

CMU faculty and students created 148 spinoff companies in the past five years and pushed through 871 licensing agreements. Pitt students and faculty created another 70 companies and signed 674 licensing agreements. CMU’s efforts generated nearly $11 million a year over the past five years, and Pitt’s brought in nearly $14 million a year.

“It’s a small profit,” said Bob Wooldridge, director of CMU’s Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation. “If I license something today, in many instances, especially in startups, it takes years before you see revenue.”

It’s a small, yet helpful, profit compared to operating budgets in the billions of dollars at both universities or research grants totaling hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Federal law requires universities using federal funds to make their discoveries public and reinvest proceeds from those discoveries into further research, Wooldridge said.

Pitt spends its license-revenue dollars on research equipment, such as nuclear MRI machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, or to hire more researchers. The money CMU makes is invested in the related school at the university. CMU built Newell-Simon Hall with the $22 million it made when it sold stock in Lycos, once a top search engine running on technology created at the university.

Licensing works, too

Negotiating licensing agreements happens more frequently than spinning off companies, Malandro and Wooldridge said. Pitt’s focus on life sciences and medical technology leads the university’s research to be licensed by major medical companies, which can spend the money needed to take a new drug or device to market. Both universities also spin off companies that are acquired by larger companies.

In 2013, Raj Rajkumar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at CMU and the head of many of its autonomous vehicle efforts, launched Ottomatika, which developed software and hardware systems for self-driving cars. Delphi Automotive, an early investor and customer of Ottomatika, acquired the company in 2015. Rajkumar had mixed feelings.

“It validates the technology you’ve been working on,” Rajkumar said. “On the flip side, however, it’s like giving birth to a baby and giving it up for adoption.”

Other spinoffs try to make it on their own. NanoGriptech started in 2009 when Metin Sitti, a CMU professor of mechanical engineering, licensed adhesive technology he and his students had been working on since 2002. Sitti wanted to make his robots climb and looked to the gecko, a small lizard with unmatched climbing prowess, for inspiration.

The Lawrenceville-based company now manufactures synthetic materials that draw on the microfibers of a gecko’s feet. The adhesives are strong, reusable and leave no residue. A strip of nanoGriptech’s Setex adhesive can be applied and reapplied without losing strength or depositing gooey residue, said CEO Roi Ben-Itzhak.

The U.S. military uses the adhesive as fasteners on its biohazard suits. Gaming companies coat controllers with the high-friction material to make them easier to hold. There is a line of equestrian riding pants that use the technology on the thighs to better grip the oily leather of saddles, Ben-Itzhak said.

For Paul Glass, a student of Sitti’s, nanoGriptech was an opportunity to see his work through - from research to development to store shelves. Glass completed his Ph.D. at CMU and joined nanoGriptech a year after it was founded.

“This was a real chance to take these seeds started at CMU and really build something from the ground floor,” Glass said. “It sounded to me like an opportunity I might not have again.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2cqteUt

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com

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