Each research team participating in The Dartmouth Innovations Accelerator for Cancer meet with the panel of experts three times.
Behind the research teams participating in The Dartmouth Innovations Accelerator for Cancer (DIAC), there’s a secret weapon of sorts—the group of 30 experts in biotechnology who comprise the External Review Panel (ERP).
They work for venture capital firms, foundations, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, but they have a common goal with DIAC: to push teams to consider the hard questions around commercialization and translating technology.
“The ERP may be the most important part of the Accelerator program,” says Barry Schweitzer, Ph.D., D’82, Associate Director for Strategic Initiatives at the Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship and Coordinator of DIAC.
“The incredible depth of real-world biotech experience in this group allows them to ask the teams questions about their projects and their science that they have never heard before,” he says. “That gets teams to think about what they are doing in ways that they haven’t previously considered.”
The ERP, which is made up of one-third women and two-thirds Dartmouth alumni, brings together “the best of the best—bright, capable people,” with diverse experience within the biotech field, says Jake Reder, PhD, Director of New Ventures at Geisel School of Medicine, and Co-founder, Director, and CEO of Celdara Medical, a Lebanon-based company focused on transforming academic innovations into medicine.
“The faculty who participate in DIAC get benefit of the ERP, which is fantastic for them and for Dartmouth,” Reder says.
Creating a development plan
Each team meets with the ERP three times—once in December and twice in April. During those meetings, the teams outline their research and plan for commercialization. The ERP then gives feedback on all aspects of a project, including the validity of the problem, strength of the technology, depth of the competition, design of the clinical, regulatory, and business plans, and the merit of the projected budget, timeline, and milestones. The panel also helps make funding decisions.
“The science is always sound, and it’s rare that the panelists have issues with the core technology,” Reder says. Instead, the panelists are usually focused on the intricacies of bringing a product to market.
“The focus may be on competition, clinical utility, manufacturability, regulatory, or reimbursement; all those other facets that they may not have thought about fully, or at all. We’re there to say, ‘what about this’ and ‘consider that,’” he says.
In that way, researchers can avoid common pitfalls that members of the ERP may have experienced themselves or seen other biotech startups go through.
“It really helps the DIAC teams to accelerate their own learning and make better decisions,” Reder says.
There’s a misconception that the ERP is analogous to pitching before investors. But the value is more fundamental than that, as the ERP guides teams toward solid, appropriate development plan for their assets. In the long run, that will leave them well-prepared to seek funding.
“If you’re doing a good job with your development plan, meetings with investors don’t require a lot of prep,” Reder says.
An ecosystem around entrepreneurship
Reder founded New Ventures, which counsels innovators at Geisel, in 2008. At that time “there were all of these really bright researchers and very few knew much about translational research and commercialization,” he says.
Reder believed that researchers and universities that received taxpayer-funded grants from organizations like the National Institutes of Health had a responsibility to make a positive impact on society.
“Society cares far more about products and services created than about peer reviewed publications,” he says. “It’s part of Dartmouth’s mission, and making that connection was really the first task.”
Since Schweitzer announced his idea for DIAC, Reder has seen more buzz and excitement about translational research across the Dartmouth community.
“I was not surprised that he had a great idea, but I was surprised by how quickly he turned it into an outstanding success on campus, with engagement not just from faculty, but the entire Dartmouth ecosystem,” Reder says.
The value of DIAC extends even further, fostering relationships between the experts on the ERP. Through the ERP, Reder met Dr. Jonathan Heller, who is now the first entrepreneur in residence at Reder’s Celdara Medical.
“Connecting with Jake and Celdara Medical through the DIAC review panel has led to us working together to form a new pharmaceutical company that will dramatically improve the lives of patients and families suffering from amyloid diseases,” Heller says.
Collaborations like that “happen best when someone brings a community together around a common goal,” Reder says.
“This idea of ecosystem is maybe overused, but you can see that in DIAC,” he says. “It’s touching so many different parts of this community and bringing them together. That, to me, is super valuable.”
That’s beneficial not only to individual researchers participating in DIAC or the Dartmouth community at large, but ultimately to the patients who will benefit from new treatment options that may emerge from the Accelerator.
“The impact on human health is the big driver for many of us, and we’re getting closer to that impact by supporting these innovators,” Reder says.