SPARK Program Launches at CU Anschutz
Connecting Academia & Industry through Translational ResearchOksana Schuppan | CU Innovations Apr 26, 2018
SPARK OriginsSPARK was founded by Dr. Daria Mochly-Rosen at Stanford University after observing firsthand the disconnect between academia and industry. After years in academia, she ventured into the world of entrepreneurship. Dr. Mochly-Rosen was “motivated by the potential to help people” and knew that “high-potential ideas at Stanford were not moving forward,” so she decided to do something about it.
“SPARK enables both cultures to meet in the same room,” Dr. Mochly-Rosen explains. The result is an environment where the “savviness of industry” and “out-of-the-box thinking” of academia can work in conjunction devoid of unrealistic expectations.
Two additional benefits of the program include education for students and postdoctoral fellows about how to become translational researchers as well as a method for tracking how academic discoveries are benefiting society.
“Education was the only deliverable I promised,” shared Dr. Mochly-Rosen though she had hoped some projects might eventually move to industry. With a consistent commercialization/go-to-clinic success rate of 60% compared to industry success rates of 5 to 10%, the program far exceeded her expectations. “As the SPARK Global network continues to expand,” she notes, “we are all responsible for coming together to form a solution to pressing health challenges.”
Today, SPARK at Stanford is co-directed by Dr. Daria Mochly-Rosen and Dr. Kevin Grimes.
SPARK Success Story“For us, SPARK was incredibly enabling. It opened our eyes to a whole new world.”
~ Dr. Eszter Vladar, Division of Pulmonary Sciences & Critical Care Medicine
Dr. Eszter Vladar is a wonderful example of a researcher who has found SPARK to be of great value. Trained as a basic biologist with a PhD in Genetics from Stanford University, Dr. Vladar joined SPARK at Stanford in 2017 as part of a team including her postdoctoral advisor and a clinical colleague. She is now a faculty member at CU Anschutz in the Division of Pulmonary Sciences and Critical Care Medicine. Dr. Vladar’s team has identified a small molecule that is able to reverse epithelial cell dysfunction, a primary driver of chronic inflammatory airway diseases such as cystic fibrosis, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Dr. Eszter Vladar explains, “The definition of a basic scientist is one who works on any interesting and worthy question.” However, after a year participating in SPARK at Stanford, she has come to understand that her research also holds immense potential to directly impact human lives.
She notes, “The filter I have added is: of the hundreds of questions I could research, where is the key gap in knowledge given a need with respect to human disease?”
When asked to identify the most valuable aspects of the SPARK program, Dr. Vladar points to interactions with industry advisors. Recalling the first time her team presented, she describes “a swarm of advisors lining up to speak with us, a door that was very clearly opened as a result of the SPARK program.”
Dr. Vladar was particularly grateful for the generosity of patent attorneys who “really listened and were eager to provide their secrets and best strategies normally reserved for high paying clients.”
She adds, “You could tell the advisors felt a buzz tackling and breaking down our problems.”
Dr. Vladar shares that successful SPARK fellows must possess “excitement, commitment, and an open mind for a different process.”
“It’s not the money that makes the program worthwhile; the value is in the experience of being pushed and prodded along a trajectory.”
Lessons from a CU SPARK AdvisorDr. Eszter Vladar describes SPARK advisors as “movers and shakers.” With three decades of experience working alongside medical diagnostic and scientific instrumentation companies in addition to serving as a lecturer of MIT’s Sloan School and Harvard Medical School, Stanley Lapidus, CU Anschutz SPARK advisor, is no exception. Holding 36 US patents including the first significant Pap smear improvement in 50 years and the ColoGuard test for early detection of colorectal cancer, Stan is a tremendous asset to the SPARK program. In his own words, “Bridging academic discoveries into the world of products and building teams to take a published idea into the hands of healthcare consumers is what I do. For faculty members and students, being literate in the world of what happens after publication is important.” Stan’s advice to teams applying to SPARK is as follows:
#1: If there is conventional wisdom associated with problems you are solving, ask if there’s another way to get to the same place. Learning to ask the right questions is paramount.
#2: Read and learn everything, because ideas often come from fields that are completely different from the field in which one is a specialist.
#3: If you persevere, you may not have a good outcome. If you don’t persevere, you surely will not have a good outcome.
"Based on my experience with CU Innovations, I expect my role as a SPARK advisor to be highly rewarding. I’ve been very impressed with the quality of science and scientific thinking at CU Anschutz." To those contemplating becoming an advisor, Stan says, “Do it! The psyche income will be immeasurable.”
In addition to mentors, SPARK at CU Anschutz is thrilled to welcome a qualified array of faculty advisors including Craig Jordan, MD, William Sauer, MD, Melanie Joy, PharmD, PhD, and Michael Holers, MD.