Cincinnati Children’s dives deeper into product development with reorganized business unit
by Tim Bonfield
Andrew Wooten joined Cincinnati Children’s in 2017 to lead an expansion and reorganization of commercialization services now called Innovation Ventures.
Our former Center for Technology Commercialization has new leadership, a bigger team, and a new name: Cincinnati Children’s Innovation Ventures.
The rebranding reflects an expanded mission: to go beyond traditional technology transfer to support more start-up ventures, secure a wider variety of funding sources, and pursue other steps to bring promising health innovations to market.
“Under our new Co-Innovation Accelerator model, we will work with our partners to jointly accelerate innovations that impact our triple-bottom-line mission of improving child health, providing benefits to our institution, and providing benefits to our community,” says Andrew Wooten, Vice President, Cincinnati Children’s Innovation Ventures.
The Cincinnati Children’s Research Foundation ranks among the nation’s largest engines of pediatric science. More than $200 million a year in extramural funding (primarily from the National Institutes of Health) flows into approximately 1.5 million square feet of research space. From there, experts in more than 50 specialty divisions produce more than 2,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers a year.
The science ranges from exploring the most fundamental aspects of human development to creating new medications, better ways to diagnose disease, improved medical software, and entirely new technologies such as growing miniature human organs in a dish. Every year, Cincinnati Children’s discloses more than 150 new inventions.
The perennial challenge is to move more of these bold discoveries beyond the world of academia and into the marketplace, where they can make a difference in the lives of children—and adults.
Cincinnati Children’s has a decades-long history of breakthroughs. These include the Sabin oral polio vaccine that helped nearly eradicate the disease worldwide, artificial surfactant that has saved a generation of premature infants, the Rotarix rotovirus vaccine used in more than 100 countries, and the GeneSight drug metabolism test that has helped more than 650,000 people receive the best dose of psychiatric medications.
Now the medical center is making a bigger commitment to do even more.
Fording the ‘Valley of Death’
“Traditional technology commercialization offices are seen primarily as brokers of intellectual property,” Wooten says. “They help inventors obtain patents, then they market their portfolios to potential investors. Typically, the end of that process is a licensing agreement with a pharmaceutical company or other commercial partners. We intend to continue fulfilling that role, but we also are going beyond.”
In too many cases, promising ideas run out of initial research grant funding long before the concepts have matured into prototype products that the commercial sector might consider worth an investment. Many call this gap the “valley of death.”
“This is more than a funding gap. It’s also a gap in the kinds of product development expertise and infrastructure that’s needed to advance an idea,” Wooten says. “Without investment and support, many promising innovations never have a chance to prove their value to society.”
In recent years, private industry has demanded that the non-profit sector take on more of the burden and risk of moving innovations through early-stage development. However, many pediatric medical centers have not been structured to do such work.
Cincinnati Children’s began building its capacity with the Center for Technology Commercialization. The organization helped establish internal funds to provide seed money to promising innovations. It negotiated agreements with two pharmaceutical firms to support early-stage product development. It even built a collaboration with a university in Israel to design pediatric surgical devices.
The new Innovation Ventures unit seeks to accelerate this work.
What is ‘co-innovation’?
Beyond the traditional for-profit licensing agreement, Wooten describes a “co-innovation” model that nurtures funding support from at least 10 kinds of potential partners. The next “home run” from Cincinnati Children’s, Wooten says, is more likely to flow from a consortium of diverse backers versus a pure for-profit deal involving a single underwriter.
“Industry is primarily motivated by profit, but the non-profit sector often has reasons to care about an innovation before it is clear that it will be profitable,” Wooten says.
Patient advocacy groups care about specific patient groups. Economic development organizations care about building business in specific geographies or industry sectors. Other charitable foundations often have missions to improve society in some measurable way.
“Tapping into those resources during the early high-risk phase of development can make all the difference in successful commercialization,” Wooten says.
Now, part of the re-structured Innovation Ventures group focuses exclusively on building deeper relationships with non-traditional funding partners.
“One reason we chose a new name is to send the message that we do much more in the areas of commercial planning, product development and new venture creation than many realize,” Wooten says.
Traditional models of commercialization focus heavily on licensing deals to secure outside corporate funding. The team at Innovation Ventures was organized to pursue funding partners and collaborations across numerous potential sources.
Organized by asset class
After examining the growing portfolio of discoveries at Cincinnati Children’s, Wooten’s team organized them into four groups:
- Small molecule therapies
- Biologic, cell and tissue therapies
- Diagnostics and medical devices
- Digital health and care delivery
Each of these categories has unique regulatory requirements and industry networks to understand. Innovation Ventures expanded its team to 21 people in large part to provide specific expertise in product development in each of these areas. (This issue of Research Horizons describes work in each of the four categories).
This “Innovation Acceleration Group,” led by Mike Pistone, Director of Innovation Acceleration, has selected several projects in each category that are most-ready for a concentrated push. For these projects, the group devises commercialization plans, works with co-innovation partners to acquire resources, and manages projects to achieve higher value and impact.
In some cases, but only some, this can mean launching a spin-off company. In the past two years, Cincinnati Children’s has launched three new ones. In the past decade, start-ups launched here have created more than 500 jobs.
“One of the key differentiators for the Innovation Ventures team is our ability to invest in projects and new ventures,” Pistone says. “We have two mechanisms to do this, the Cincinnati Children’s Innovation Fund and the Cincinnati Children’s Investment Fund. The former primarily exists to support early-stage projects with commercial potential and the latter primarily exists to seed early investments in new companies.”
About Andrew Wooten
Title: Vice President, Cincinnati Children’s Innovation Ventures
Start date: January 2017
- Holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and master’s degrees in biotechnology and business administration.
- Started as an embryologist for Reproductive Biology Associates.
- Moved into business development with ThermoFisher Scientific and Applied Biosystems.
- Helped launch AviGenics, which was renamed Synageva Biopharma, and eventually acquired by Alexion.
- Moved into the non-profit sector, most recently with Baylor College of Medicine.
I started out thinking that I wanted to be a scientist, and I still think of myself as a scientist. For me, business and law are tools to facilitate the groundbreaking advances produced by scientific research. This is my calling.
I came to Cincinnati Children’s because the institution represents a great sandbox for someone like me to play in. The base of high-quality research is here. The combination of a top research engine and a top clinical care operation under the same roof is a very powerful combination for someone in my role. Finally, the role that I was offered afforded me the opportunity to pull a lot of the levers necessary for success.
A “home run” would be great. But this business is more about increasing the number of shots on goal. Increase our odds of achieving a big deal. Mature assets have better odds of success. The further we can take something, the more value we can ask for it.
Cincinnati Children’s Start-Ups
Cincinnati Children’s is one of the world’s leading pediatric research centers. Here, investigators use more than $200 million a year in grant funding to produce more than 2,000 peer-reviewed publications that advance biomedical science. From that flow of knowledge, Cincinnati Children’s generates more than 150 innovation disclosures a year and has spun off more than a dozen start-up companies, including those shown here. Its commercial license payments and related income generate approximately $6.5 million in revenue, all of which goes back into its non-profit mission of improving child health.