Science & Tech

Accelerator Fund boon to research

5 min read

Harvard program provides bridge for promising life-sciences developments

Sometimes, promising scientific findings aren’t enough, by themselves.

Life-science researchers at Harvard who’ve made new inventions with applied and commercial potential are often disappointed to learn that pharmaceutical, venture capital, or biotech firms aren’t interested in their work — and not because a discovery lacks merit. Instead, the glitch may be that the research hasn’t progressed far enough to establish proof-of-principle, which is imperative for industry to make a forward-looking decision to invest significant resources and develop it for commercial application.

Harvard’s Office of Technology Development (OTD) has created a unique internal seed funding program to help researchers to fill this development gap. Called the Technology Development Accelerator Fund, it provides bridge money that allows researchers to continue advancing their work through development phases that often come too late for typical basic research funds and too early for money to be available from commercial ventures.

“I believe that Harvard has a unique opportunity, indeed, one might say a special obligation to foster and expedite the development of nascent technologies that can benefit the public,” said Isaac Kohlberg, Harvard’s chief technology development officer and senior associate provost. “The Accelerator Fund is an expression of our commitment to ensure that greater numbers of promising new technologies originating at Harvard won’t languish in the development gap, but instead will bridge the gap and progress to the point where they become bona-fide, investment-grade opportunities and ultimately new products and therapies that benefit society.”

The Accelerator Fund, which is about to begin accepting applications for the next round of financing, is in its third year and has distributed $4.1 million to 23 investigator-initiated research projects at Harvard. One, a small-molecule inhibitor that might be useful in cancer therapy, has already been licensed to a New York biotech company.

Arlene Sharpe, the George Fabyan Professor of Comparative Pathology, received Accelerator Fund backing to conduct small-molecule screening in her investigations of a T-cell regulator called PD-1. PD-1, which shuts down T-cell response, has been usurped by microbes and tumors as a way to weaken the body’s immune response. Sharpe is looking for a small molecule that will modulate PD-1 activity.

Sharpe said one aspect of Accelerator funding that has proven particularly helpful is the technical advice and assistance provided by OTD that accompanies the grant. In her case, Sharpe said, the advice was essential because she had never conducted small-molecule screening before.

“It has been a wonderful experience,” Sharpe said. “The idea of helping investigators develop something that is potentially high risk, helping them enter a new area, providing the financial as well as intellectual support, is very beneficial. Going from initial design to proof of concept, and then, once one has something of interest, to be able to identify business partners is an incredible opportunity.”

The Accelerator Fund was founded in 2007, financed by donations from interested alumni. A portion of future licensing revenues from discoveries supported by the Accelerator which are licensed and developed by industry will be cycled back to replenish the fund. Awards are made through a competitive RFP process and consultation with an advisory committee comprised of opinion leaders from the biopharma and venture community and members of Harvard’s faculty.

“I think it is important. Many times, there are projects that we might see that are too early,” said Chris Mirabelli of Healthcare Ventures LLC, a healthcare-focused venture capital fund and an Accelerator Fund advisory board member.

The program, which is presently focused on the life sciences, has proven successful enough to be replicated, according to Curtis Keith, the Accelerator Fund’s chief scientific officer.

“Once you establish proof-of-principle, you increase the probability that industry will see the emerging technology as a viable licensing and development opportunity,” Keith said. “As a result, we hope to generate both more licensable technologies and, at the same time, additional collaborations with industry to support further research at Harvard.”

The Office of Technology Development and the Wyss Institute for Biologically-Inspired Engineering are collaborating on a new fund that will allow projects in bioengineering to benefit from the same kind of financial support.

Harvard Provost Steven E. Hyman said that moving new inventions out of research laboratories and into the marketplace, where they might benefit people, is a vital part of Harvard’s mission.

“I see this as fundamental to the fabric of our mission as one of the world’s foremost research universities,” Hyman said. “We are delighted with the Accelerator’s progress, and the very professional way in which it operates and is managed. The Accelerator is Harvard’s unique response to the challenges presented by the development gap, providing a novel mechanism to fund early-stage research with promising commercial potential, advancing the progress of embryonic technologies and increasing the flow of inventions made by Harvard’s faculty from the laboratory into the marketplace and society as a whole.”