The Coulter-Drexel Translational Research Partnership Program recently passed the necessary requirements to continue through 2021, which will create additional opportunities for Drexel faculty and students to work on groundbreaking clinical technologies and to develop companies that improve human health.
In 2006, Drexel University was one of just nine schools selected in the first phase of the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation Translational Research Partnership Program, which led to the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems providing more support and guidance to faculty researchers in their endeavors to create innovative solutions and companies to address real-world issues. In 2011, Drexel became one of the six universities, out of those nine, to earn the permanent endowment from the foundation, placing the University in the company of top-tier institutions like Stanford University and Duke University. The University — and President John Fry, who hadn’t yet finished his first year at Drexel by that point — matched a $10 million donation from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation to create the Coulter-Drexel Translational Research Partnership Program.
That program has grown and adapted and, most impressively, supported more and more teams and projects over the years. Since its inception in 2006, the program has funded the development of over 50 technologies. More than $50 million in additional funds — angel and venture investment, and grant funds — has been raised to support the development of these technologies after the Coulter award. Those numbers, and opportunities, will now continue to grow over the next three years.
“It is so gratifying that the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation will sustain its partnership with Drexel University,” said John Fry, president of Drexel University. “Their support for vital health-care research being facilitated through the Coulter-Drexel Translational Research Partnership Program offers the hope of healthier and better lives for people around the world.”
With its next three years lined up, the partnership is poised to continue on its path of growth and success. Since 2015, the Coulter-Drexel Translational Research Partnership Program has expanded its close relationship with the Office of Technology Commercialization, so that now the licensing managers are brought in even earlier in the process to help evaluate potential projects and develop licensing and patent strategies. The partnership also expanded to include the College of Medicine through a better integration of projects and partners in the College, as well as the Close School of Entrepreneurship, which has held faculty workshops and other programs every term to prepare faculty and researchers for building companies around their projects. Leadership and oversight has also been strengthened in the past three years, with the group’s oversight committee gaining a third clinician and the Coulter-Drexel team now meeting with faculty monthly to monitor research progress, identify challenges and troubleshoot.
“We have changed our approach to cultivate a more robust pipeline of viable technologies, improve the selection process and better support our faculty innovators,” said Kenneth A. Barbee, PhD, professor and associate dean for research in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems. “We're really vetting these projects much more stringently. The oversight committee is much more engaged in the review and with helping and mentoring the teams, and we're attracting CEOs who want to come and work with us and build these companies.”
Those additions, and so much more, have increased since 2015 with the addition of Coulter Program Director Kathie Jordan, PhD, who came to Drexel that year after serving as the director of the Coulter program at the University of Washington, which is one of the other universities that has partnered with the Coulter Foundation.
“It has been incredibly rewarding to work with such talented faculty, and the serial entrepreneurs in the area who bring their expertise in bringing start-ups to our Drexel portfolio. It’s been exciting to be part of the energy around innovation, both here at Drexel, and in Philadelphia,” said Jordan.
Since 2015, several faculty and alumni have launched successful start-up companies to develop products, with the companies using government and investment contracts to raise hundreds of thousands — or millions — of dollars. Mihir Shah ’00 is the CEO of UE LifeSciences, which raised a total of $5.1 million for its portable, low-cost iBreast Exam, which is based on technology developed by Wan Shih, PhD, a professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems, and Wei-heng Shih, PhD, a professor in the College of Engineering. Context Therapeutics, a University City firm co-founded by Felix Kim, PhD, an assistant professor in the College of Medicine who develops cancer-fighting drugs, raised $8.5 million. Other companies are working to produce technology related to brain edema monitoring, Parkinson’s Disease and a total ankle replacement. Companies and technologies that are in the process of being developed through the Coulter-Drexel Program vary in interests from an ultrasound technology to detect heart conditions to topical skin treatments that could reduce wrinkles and improve skin tone.
These companies and other projects related to the Coulter-Drexel Program involve not just faculty and staff, but also alumni in the relevant fields. An industry advisory board that helps vet projects in the beginning stage is comprised mostly of alumni who engage with the University and its alumni network after graduation.
“Because of Drexel’s co-op program, our students get a head-start on their careers, so they already have a wealth of advanced experiences and responsibilities beyond average new hires,” said Jordan. “That has enabled us to get advice from our alumni in terms of what we should be doing next. Some of our alumni regularly review two or three projects and it’s enormously beneficial for myself and the licensing managers in the Office of Technology Commercialization.”
Several Drexel students are also engaging with the Coulter-Drexel Program before their graduations. Since 2016, a small group of graduate students at Drexel have been named to the Coulter Fellows Program, which is open to graduate students from across the University. This fellowship provides an opportunity to work alongside the faculty teams involved in the program by conducting market research and competitive analysis of the products.
Three students — from the College of Engineering, the LeBow College of Business and the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems — graduated in the first class of Coulter Fellows, as previously covered in DrexelNow. In the second year of the program, six graduate students were named Coulter Fellows. This year, a total of seven students (who all happened to have medical and life science backgrounds) were named Coulter Fellows, including the program’s first MD/MBA student who returned to the program as a senior fellow after working with the program last year.
The next group of Coulter Fellows will be announced next January. In addition to looking to grow that program, Barbee and Jordan hope to increase opportunities for post-doctoral researchers in the future as well. The possibility of a post-doctoral training program focused around translation could become a reality, which would help faculty looking for assistance on projects and research with shorter timeframes than expected for a typical doctoral student’s thesis research. Other colleges and universities involved with the Coulter Foundation have programs for post-doctoral students who are already studying at the institution, but the Drexel program would be unique in attracting post-doc researchers to come to the University.
“We’re working on the idea of a postdoctoral training program, and we’d want to start small and raise money for funding to build it right,” said Barbee. “We’d set up a boot camp for leadership development and other training that would help the post-docs develop skills to operate in start-ups. I can see it growing it into a large, University-wide program. The hope is that by offering this unique kind of training and support, Drexel will attract talented scientists and engineers who want to develop the skills to be leaders in medical innovation. The sky’s the limit.”
This story was published in the summer 2018 issue of Drexel Quarterly.