April 16, 2015
Author: Lini S. Kadaba
Drexel is one of just a handful of universities endowed by the Coulter Foundation to help academic researchers bring their health-care discoveries to market — much the way an angel investor helps entrepreneurs.
The aha! moment came when Drexel University researcher Margaret E. O’Neil looked at how children with cerebral palsy spent time.
Like many youngsters, these children enjoyed video games, including the X Box 360 Kinect, where they use their body to control the games. In theory, the games could encourage children with the neuromotor disability to improve their physical function, but most children found the games on the market too challenging (too fast, distracting or noisy) to play successfully. What was needed was a game designed at their level that would challenge them to use their motor skills — while still being fun to play.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could change the parameters of this game?” wondered O’Neil, an associate professor of physical therapy and rehabilitation sciences in the College of Nursing and Health Professions.
Fast-forward a couple of years. Called Kollect, the video game prototype she developed can match therapeutic goals to game play and then transmit feedback on the patient’s progress. For many academics, the idea might have stopped there, with a lab model. But O’Neil and three colleagues hope to bring Kollect to market through Drexel’s innovative Coulter-Drexel Translational Research Partnership Program.
In its ninth year, the unusual — and intense — program helps researchers commercialize discoveries that improve human health. Researchers submit applications to an oversight committee at their university. Those who advance must make a 20-minute oral presentation and prepare for pointed questions about market size and competition. Winners receive grants and guidance to help commercialize their ideas. Think of it as a kinder, gentler version of the reality TV show “Shark Tank.”
“I think of the Coulter program as the angel investor,” says Davood Tashayyod, director of Drexel’s Coulter Program.
Established by the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, the program carries on the legacy of healthcare innovation that biomedical engineer and inventor Wallace Coulter prized. Only 16 universities around the country have Coulter programs and just seven of those have been endowed.
The foundation granted initial annual awards to the universities and then established endowments of $10 million, equally matched by the institutions.
“We don’t believe in basic research, research in search of knowledge,” says Mara Neal, director of research awards for the Miami-based foundation. “Translational research is research in search of a product. … We do not want to create entrepreneurs. We want serial innovators — those professors who stay at the University and do what they do best…teach, research and innovate.”
Nationally, Coulter programs have funded 280 projects to the tune of $70 million, according to Neal. About 25 projects have resulted in commercial products.
At Drexel, more than 40 projects — devices, diagnostics and drugs — have received money totaling about $5.54 million, says Tashayyod. Of those, a dozen have been licensed, meaning management teams are raising venture capital for additional pivotal FDA studies, he says. No projects have made it to market, though some are getting close.
Kollect, however, is one of several newer technologies that hold the promise to change that record soon. In many ways, O’Neil’s experience serves as a case study of the Coulter model and the importance of this resource for all Drexel researchers.
“As we continue to invest heavily in our technology commercialization efforts, the Coulter experience informs everything we do,” President John A. Fry says. “Coulter recognition also gave us the privilege and responsibility to be ambassadors for translational research around the world and put us in a research network with wonderful institutions such as Duke, Michigan, Stanford and Virginia. Drexel is committed to this program and I encourage all faculty to apply.”
To apply for a Coulter award, researchers must show their idea has efficacy based on previous studies. “The program does not fund projects at the back-of-the-napkin idea stage,” Tashayyod says. “In our program, we design a ‘killer experiment’ to prove the technology. It’s usually a pre-clinical study that, if successful, will convince potential licensees that this technology has commercial value. Alternatively, a negative result can ‘kill’ the projects that are unlikely to reach the market.”
O’Neil had previously studied 57 youth with cerebral palsy to evaluate how they used the motion-sensing features of Kinect in active XBox gaming. She determined that off-the-shelf games aren’t flexible enough to be used as tools for physical therapy.
To create a prototype of a game that challenges players to collect objects, she teamed up with Paul J. Diefenbach, an associate professor in digital media who directs Drexel’s RePlay Lab for game research and who has startup experience. Also joining the team were Patricia Shewokis, a professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions with appointments in the College of Medicine and School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems (BIOMED), whose specialties are movement science, integration of brain and behavior and applied statistics; and Hasan Ayaz, an assistant research professor in BIOMED who is a brain-computer interface expert.
Kollect, Diefenbach says, is unique because it allows a therapist or parent to adjust parameters, such as the length of the game or the size of the screen on which the objects appear — all to target therapy. The platform also records data and will have social networking aspects. “The cost will be very reasonable,” he says. “We want this to be very accessible. … I don’t see anybody else filling this niche.”
Already, a father in Germany who saw a video about the project asked how to purchase it for his toddler, Diefenbach adds.
O’Neil calls the game “stealth health,” a catchy phrase sure to please marketers.
In the lead-up to the selection, the team received training in technology commercialization. Beginning this year, Drexel will formalize the effort by offering applicants Coulter College — a crash course in topics such as intellectual property protection and how to negotiate the FDA’s regulatory pathways. “All of these activities are to get the applicants familiarized with what the investor expects to hear,” Tashayyod says.
A key element of the Coulter program is the business mentor, who offers in-depth advice to shape the oral presentation. In Kollect’s case, Antonio Tedesco, an angel investor and Drexel graduate in chemical engineering (BS ’96), volunteered for the role.
“I was looking for ways to help the [Drexel] community,” he says. “I’m passionate about entrepreneurship and startups.”
Tedesco helped refine the team’s oral presentation. Rather than focus on scientific data, typical for an academic seminar, he urged a big-picture talk. “You’re trying to present the opportunity to create a business,” he says. “You have to assume the product works. Now what? Is there a market? Is anyone else doing this?”
The Coulter program is “awesome,” Tedesco says. “It’s a great opportunity to get some early financing to validate what you’re doing. From the investors’ perspective, there is less risk.”
For academics, the business angle can prove intimidating. “I didn’t know how to write a business plan,” O’Neil allows. “I failed miserably in the practice session. Too many words. Not enough visuals. [Tedesco] helped us turn my boring presentation into one that was more a business, marketing, innovation plan.”
The end result was a win of $130,000 for further game development as well as a rigorous patient study to test the product. Over the next couple of years, the team aims to license its technology, establish a startup as well as a management team, possibly drawn from among Drexel alums, and attract venture capital.
“It was funded with a lot of enthusiasm,” says Brenda Gavin, a member of the oversight committee and a partner with Quaker Partners, a life-sciences venture capital fund in Philadelphia.
“We’re swimming in science, in very good science,” she says. “But most of it sits on a shelf and gathers dust. It loses value.”
The Coulter Program aims to change that, one project at a time.