Turning bright ideas into health care breakthroughs

March 19, 2021
A lightbulb superimposed upon a conference room with people meeting to discuss ideas. Licensed from istock.com
Licensed from istockphoto.com

We have all heard stories about how innovative ideas can change the course of history: from Thomas Edison’s invention of the lightbulb to Alexander Fleming’s observation that the penicillin mold growing in a Petri dish was antibacterial. But if the seeds of such innovative ideas are not nourished, too often they fail to reach their full potential.

MUSC has worked hard to create an innovation ecosystem that will help new ideas generated by faculty, staff and students to flourish. Two recent “Relentless Challenge” awards from the South Carolina Department of Commerce –  one to the MUSC Foundation for Research Development (FRD) and one to the Zucker Institute for Applied Neurosciences (ZIAN), a technology accelerator embedded at MUSC –  will further enhance and expand that innovation ecosystem at MUSC. The mission of the Relentless Challenge awards is to promote entrepreneurship in South Carolina by strategically investing in localized initiatives.

Learning the entrepreneurial ropes

The FRD will use its award to ensure the sustainability of its new online entrepreneurship course, Entrepreneurship in the Biomedical Space, which was launched by College of Graduate Studies (CGS) dean Paula Traktman, Ph.D., and associate dean Cynthia Wright, Ph.D., and funded by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

Dr. Paula Traktman, dean of the College of Graduate Studies 
Dr. Paula Traktman

“The entrepreneurship program provides a bridge from the ivory tower to the real-world opportunities that can be inspired by cutting-edge research and will be of great benefit to our trainees,” said Traktman.

“I am really excited by the potential for this course to help biomedical researchers learn how to develop the ideas they have in the lab into technologies that will be useful in the diagnosis and cure of human diseases,” said Wright.

"The entrepreneurship program provides a bridge from the ivory tower to the real-world opportunities that can be inspired by cutting-edge research and will be of great benefit to our trainees."  -- Dr. Paula Traktman

Scott Davis, Ph.D., senior director of Innovation Support and Commercialization at the FRD, worked closely with the CGS to build the curriculum for the course. In addition to the online curriculum,  Venture Carolina, which provides education to support the development of early-stage growth companies through the Southeast, will offer workshops that expose students to entrepreneurship in action.

Dr. Cindy Wright, associate dead of the College of Graduate Studies 
Dr. Cynthia Wright

“These workshops will be run by experienced investors, who will show researchers at MUSC how to turn a nascent startup company into one that is ready for investment,” said Davis.

The Relentless Challenge funds were used in part to establish a collaboration with Capt. James Bezjian, Ph.D., assistant professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the Citadel and a principal at Bezjian Consulting LLC. Bezjian is directing the certificate program and using his skills and experience to enhance the student experience.

“I am really excited by the potential for this course to help biomedical researchers learn how to develop the ideas they have in the lab into technologies that will be useful in the diagnosis and cure of human diseases." 
-- Dr. Cynthia Wright

“The program gives medical professionals an opportunity to touch on the basic principles of entrepreneurship from a biomedical perspective,” said Bezjian. “It’s a tailored program to fit their current needs in the workplace and to help them understand the complexities of bringing medical innovations to market.”

Dr. Scott Davis of the MUSC Foundation for Research Development 
Dr. Scott Davis

Those who successfully complete the program will earn a certificate in entrepreneurship. The course runs three times a year and is currently in its second cohort, having enrolled approximately 25 students. By its third cohort, which is scheduled for the summer, it will begin to accept trainees from around the state, as space allows.

The FRD will use the funding to begin to develop a startup launchpad as well, which will take advantage of the Venture South workshops and outside consultants to expand MUSC’s support for startup innovators.

"These workshops will be run by experienced investors, who will show researchers at MUSC how to turn a nascent startup company into one that is ready for investment.” -- Dr. Scott Davis

“At the FRD, we are really good at helping startups obtain initial funding. With these funds, we plan to bolster support and assist startups as they continue to grow and develop,” said Davis.

Inspiring, innovating, commercializing

ZIAN’s Relentless Challenge award will support its Inspire, Innovate, Commercialize (I2C) initiative, which is seeking to identify 40 ideas from innovators in all specialties across the MUSC Health System, including its regional network of hospitals, with the goal of shepherding at least three innovators to a pitch to angel investors.

“If you're an MUSC employee and you have an idea on how to improve the future of health care, you can contact ZIAN, and we will work with you to push that idea forward so we can make that meaningful impact on people.” -- ZIAN CEO Mark Semler

ZIAN has the expertise to vet these ideas to ensure that each meets the four criteria needed for successful development: the ability to address an unmet clinical or research need, patentability, feasibility and potential market value.

“They need to have all four,” said ZIAN CEO Mark Semler. “It’s a four-legged chair. If you’re missing a leg, it falls over.”

Dr. Kalhorn and Mark Semler discussing the TranZform XRay. 
MUSC Health spine surgeon Dr. Stephen P. Kalhorn (left)  and ZIAN CEO Mark Semler (right) view an X-ray showing placement of  the TranZformTM Expandable Interbody Cage, an innovative device for spine surgery envisioned by Kalhorn and developed by ZIAN.

Although ZIAN has traditionally worked with clinician-innovators, Semler is seeking innovations that align with MUSC’s mission and improve not only health care but also research and education.

“If you're an MUSC employee and you have an idea on how to improve the future of health care, you can contact ZIAN, and we will work with you to push that idea forward so we can make that meaningful impact on people,” said Semler. “The idea doesn’t have to be clinical. We want ideas that are in the scope of your job, even if it's more research than clinical, as long as it is in the health care space.”

MUSC innovators interested in the initiative can contact ZIAN via its website.

Registration information for the entrepreneurship certificate course can be found on its website. If you have any questions about the course, please email Scott Davis.