How the SBIR development centre funds cancer initiatives

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Published: 25 Apr 2018
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Michael Weingarten - National Cancer Institute, Rockville, USA

Michael Weingarten speaks with ecancer at AACR 2018 about the work of the SBIR development centre at the NCI.

He talks about the success of companies which they support and fund, giving a few examples.

For more about the SBIR, watch our interview with Dr Paul Pearlman.

SBIR is a programme that Congress actually set up going back to 1982. The goal of the programme is to actually fund small businesses in multiple disease areas. Our focus in on cancer, since we’re at the NCI, but the goal of the programme is to fund the translation of the most promising research coming out of academia and to transfer those technologies out to small business so we can eventually commercialise and then we can get them out to patients.

The size of our programme, this year it’s going to be about $170 million. At any given time we’re funding about 400 different projects. That cuts across areas of new drug development, new diagnostics, new imaging technologies, new ways of treating cancer such as radiation therapy, as well as areas such as research tools and digital health. So it’s a very broad-based programme.

Can you give me some examples of these businesses?

If you look at when a company would typically apply for funding from us oftentimes it’s soon after they’ve actually formed. Most of the companies that apply for funding from us, they’re usually five people or less when they first get started and our goal is to provide funding to really help build the company and demonstrate and validate the technology that they’re developing. If you look at it, we really fund companies across the board. I have just a couple of examples I can share with you: we’re funding this one company called Chrono Therapeutics, a company that we’ve been funding for about seven years now. They’re actually developing a technology that’s going to be a replacement for nicotine, nicotine replacement therapy. It’s actually this device that a patient would actually wear on their arm and it provides nicotine replacement timed to whenever that patient’s cravings are going to be the strongest. So it has a benefit over the patch – the patch gives you continuous nicotine replacement, this one the benefits are that it’s actually timed to pulse when the patient actually needs it the most. So, for example, when you’re waking up in the morning and you’re hungry that can oftentimes be when your cravings are the strongest. So it will have a benefit over the patch because that has some side effects that this technology actually won’t have.

So that technology is actually going through clinical trials right now and we’re hoping it’s going to be a product in the next couple of years. We provided the initial funding and that company is now, because NCI put the funding in on the front end, the company has now been able to actually go out and raise over $80 million in private capital. So the key with the NCI and what we try to do is we put the initial seed funding in to get the company going, to prove out the technology and as that technology is demonstrated and as it moves into clinical trials, as an example, that company then has enough data to then go out and raise additional capital. Because our funding is never going to be enough to get them all the way to the commercialisation of a product and get a product out to patients but we’re trying to de-risk the technology enough to help them get where they need to be.

Aside from the funding how else do you assist?

We get very involved all the way on the front end. So when teams would like to apply for funding from SBIR oftentimes they haven’t applied to the NIH before. One thing we offer everyone who wants to apply for SBIR funding is we’ll actually get on the phone with them and we’ll ask them to send us the specific aims for a project that they would like to pursue and we’ll review it and we’ll say, ‘Is this a good fit for SBIR or not?’ Then we’ll advise them on what are the things that they should really be thinking about in terms of building their application.

So we want to see them demonstrate that there’s a real unmet need out in the community that’s not currently being met. So they need to demonstrate the significance of that project, they need to show us the innovation that they are accomplishing with the goals of the project so it’s just not like another me too technology. They need to show us the strength of their team, how strong the team is that they’ve actually built for the technology. Then they also need to demonstrate the market for that technology. We really help walk them through the whole process of how to build a good proposal.

Another thing that we do is we actually were very active in outreach. We do events like here at AACR where we go out; we probably do about fifty different events around the country where we’ll go and we’ll just meet with companies. We’ll give them an overview of the programme and then we’ll sit one on one with those companies and we’ll learn about their technology and then we’ll advise them on an application.

In addition to providing that type of advice we also run other kinds of programmes within the SBIR programme. We run a programme called Innovation Corps, also we call that programme I-Corps for short. That’s an entrepreneurship training programme that we offer to our start-up companies that really teaches them how to build a business model around the technology that they are developing. The reason that’s such an important resource to offer to companies is most of the companies we fund, they’re academic start-ups, they don’t have a lot in the way of business training so I-Corps over the course of an eight week programme really teaches the company how to go about analysing what is the real value proposition around the technology that they are developing, what is it that is unique about the technology that they’re developing that can offer a solution to a patient need, for example, that isn’t currently being met. It also helps them to define who are their real customers. For example, what cancer indication could that technology actually be best targeted at in order to meet a patient need and then what’s the market around that technology. Then it also teaches them how to go about building strategic partnerships with larger companies that ultimately they’re going to need to be successful. So it really is a nice, comprehensive programme that we have found helps. When companies come out of the training that they go through through the I-Corps programme the whole company and the business model, they’ve really transformed so that they are going in a really positive direction after they come out and they’re much smarter on the technology and the business side.

We’ve seen a lot of our companies that have been successful coming out of the programme and I’ll just give you an example. We first offered this programme back in 2014, we had nineteen companies go through that first programme. Out of those nineteen companies four commercial products have already been launched and those companies have actually been able to go out and raise over $81 million in funding from private investors. So that’s just, in a nutshell, how some of the companies benefit.

What other resources do you offer?

We offer other resources for our companies. We run a programme we call our Investor Initiatives programme. So I mentioned that all these companies need to be able to go out and raise other capital in addition to just government funding. So we build relationships with the top investors across the country. That includes investors from the venture capital world, from larger strategic companies such as large pharmaceutical companies or large device companies. We also build relationships with folks like Angel Investors. Our goal is that by the NCI building these relationships we can help open doors for our small businesses that they might not be able to do themselves and that we make introductions from our top companies that we’re funding in our portfolio to these investors. We have a panel of about fifty investors that will review all the companies in our portfolio and they help identify the top companies that we’re funding and then, based on that review, we will fund those companies to go to private investor events so that they can raise additional capital. So we, again, have found that to be very helpful to our companies in terms of trying to raise the capital they need.