Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

Stanford program gives discoveries a shot at commercialization

By Mike May

In the late 1990s, Daria Mochly-Rosen, a protein chemist at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California, discovered that a certain class of drugs that inhibit enzymes known as protein kinase C could reduce cardiac damage after a heart attack. Working with Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing (OTL), she patented the finding with hopes of licensing it to a pharmaceutical company. No one showed any interest.

Determined, Mochly-Rosen made the rounds with her colleagues in the pharmaceutical industry. But her pharma contacts wanted a drug to prevent heart attacks, not something to give after them. “They told me to go away,” she says. So, in 2002, Mochly-Rosen and her then–graduate student Leon Chen founded KAI Pharmaceuticals to commercialize this technology. To see the process through, Mochly-Rosen took a year off from academia to raise money for her company, work through the regulatory process with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and launch a clinical trial.

Upon returning to Stanford, Mochly-Rosen realized that her invention was surely not the only one stuck in limbo at the OTL. To help her colleagues commercialize their inventions, she started SPARK, which “stands for nothing,” admits Mochly-Rosen, now senior associate dean for research at Stanford. “The program is just about sparking.”

Now in its sixth year and run by Mochly-Rosen and Stanford physician Kevin Grimes, SPARK consists largely of a Wednesday-night get-together of around 70 professors, postdocs, graduate students and industrial advisers. The group works on commercializing about eight projects a year—selected from a pool of about 150 projects that were languishing at OTL—within a two-year window, ultimately getting the inventor to form a company or licensing the technology to a biotech. Selected projects receive approximately $50,000 from the SPARK program for each of the two years and direct mentorship from industry advisors and academic colleagues.

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