David Ferguson and Ryan Fleischmann, two self-proclaimed “science guys” at Baylor College of Medicine, are expanding their horizons from the lab to the board room through the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge, an initiative of the Avon Foundation, the Center for Advancing Innovation and the National Institutes of Health.
The challenge is designed to accelerate the commercialization of existing technology developed and patented by NIH researchers by having teams of students and others create a business plan built around these inventions. Teams can choose one of 10 existing inventions to build their business plan around.
Teams with the best business plan will win $5,000 and move on to the start-up phase of the competition, where they could earn $100,000 to launch their business idea into a company.
The BCM team of eight, led by Ferguson and Fleischmann, is developing a diagnostic kit for breast cancer detection and treatment optimization. It is based on a tissue-based diagnostic assay developed by NIH researcher Dr. Stephen Hewitt that analyzes biomarkers to predict a cancer patient’s survival and determine treatment course. The technology has been applied to several types of cancer but not to breast cancer.
Ferguson and Fleischmann work at the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Center at BCM and Texas Children’s Hospital, where David is a postdoctoral fellow and Ryan is a lab technician. But they are familiar with one of the biomarkers key to the diagnostic tool – the mTOR pathway – through their research on muscle physiology as it relates to nutrition. They heard about the challenge and thought they could apply their knowledge of that pathway to the development of a diagnostic kit specific to breast cancer.
While they’re not cancer researchers, the two are still more comfortable with the science side of the competition than the business side. However, they are working with an entrepreneur advisor, Gary Robinson, to help hone their business and presentations skills. Robinson offers 20 years of experience in the research, development and commercialization of science technologies and products. They also rely on the input of a science advisor and legal advisor.
In February, the team will give a 5-minute presentation on their business plan to a panel of judges. They must also prepare a 10-page written business plan and a 1-minute “elevator pitch.”
“I know nothing about business – a lot of researchers don’t and certainly don’t know anything about forming a company,” Fleischmann said. “This experience definitely helps to bridge the gap between the science and business worlds.”
They liken the initiative to the television show “Shark Tank,” except for scientists. But in addition to learning the basics of launching a business, Ferguson noted he’s learning skills that he can apply to his research career.
“This experience has changed my approach to grant-writing,” Ferguson said. “I understand now that I need to address the business/logistical side of the science in addition to why the science is important and how it can impact people.”
They emphasize that their work at the CNRC is their priority and their involvement with the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge is extracurricular.