Industry and Academia Partner to Reach Patients through Popular Catalyst Award

Catalyst Team, Counterclockwise: Cathy Tralau-Stewart, Irina Gitlin, June Lee, Aenor Sawyer, Terry O'Donnell, Anja Wehrmann, Ruben Rathnasingham, Ricardo Lamy

By Kate Darby Rauch

A highly efficient and wearable artificial lung for adults and children.

A new class of contrast agent to improve the diagnosis of multi organ disease in the abdomen.

A hand-held spirometer and associated mobile application that allows patients with asthma, COPD and other respiratory conditions to accurately measure real-time airway function and share the data with their physicians.

These are a few of the research projects that advanced to the final stage of the Fall 2014 cycle of the Catalyst Awards, a unique program administered by the Clinical and Translational Science Institute  (CTSI) at UC San Francisco (UCSF) that accelerates promising early research by matching investigators with funding and customized consultation from healthcare product development experts.  

The goal of the Catalyst Awards program, now in its fourth year, is to help UCSF investigators navigate the lengthy, multifaceted and often challenging path from their labs to products and treatments that benefit patients.

The Catalyst Awards Fall 2014  “Report Out” was held at UCSF Mission Bay Campus at the end of January. At this closed-door event, 14 finalists from an initial 31 proposals presented their projects to a hall full of industry executives, academic colleagues, and students, and identified gaps in their research and their plans to address them.

Several of these finalists were selected to receive funding and continued mentoring to develop their projects.

See below for a list of this cycle’s winners & photo slideshow

Industry Luminary Opens Catalyst Awards Event

Hal Barron, MD, president of Research and Development at Calico, former Chief Medical Officer at Hoffmann-La Roche, and one of the most respected clinician-researchers in the biotechnology industry opened the Catalyst event. His talk, which focused on the importance of identifying and understanding outlying patient responses to clinical treatments to better guide and develop more effective personalized therapies, drew a standing-room-only audience of UCSF and San Francisco bay area clinicians, scientists, investors and healthcare industry professionals.

Customized Guidance

Advisors come from academia, private industry, law, and venture capital, and are carefully chosen for their expertise and ability to mentor and coach researchers who are themselves highly accomplished in their scientific and clinical areas.

Advisors are tasked with working with Catalyst research teams for several months, helping them address the gaps in translating their early findings into clinically and commercially viable products. “These interactions have not only resulted in improving the market potential for these promising technologies, but often lead to new understandings of the challenges and opportunities in translational research, which are leveraged in future projects”, said Ruben Rathnasingham, associate director of CTSI’s Early Translational Research program, which administers the Catalyst Awards.

“If you’re working in the basic sciences on therapeutic development it’s really important to get industry input to make sure you’ll have a buyer on the other end,” said Stephen Nishimura, MD, a professor of pathology whose Catalyst Awards project, which made it to the final review, is the development of a protein blocker to treat and prevent fibrosis.

“The cultures and processes of industry and academia are different,” Nishimura said. “The program is a mechanism to get you started in understanding the way industry thinks. The ability to have confidential conversations with industry individuals is particularly valuable.”

The program focuses on four research tracks —therapeutics, diagnostics, devices and digital health. There are two grant cycles each year.

“I valued the input and resources we received from the many advisors who helped shape our project and guide the first collaborative effort with a private company,” said Ngoc Ly, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics who is co-developing the Spirometer and mobile application with a private industry partner.

Rewarding for Academics and Industry Advisors

Outstanding Advisors: Larry Hyman, JD, MS, and Kenneth Fang, MD, with Catalyst Director June Lee, MD


Catalyst consultants, many of whom have been with the program since it started, describe their participation as invigorating, inspiring, and deeply rewarding. 

“The frontline clinicians understand all the problems in digital health, but they lack the expertise to launch companies,” said Rick Beberman, MBA, an investment and corporate development professional who also advises digital health startups. “For me it’s a great opportunity to help clinicians translate their ideas to something that would be commercially attainable.”

Early research is particularly exciting, Beberman said. “I love doing this. I love mentoring. I love getting involved in projects at an early stage and helping them grow. Catalyst projects over the years are evolving, and getting more sophisticated and addressing larger markets.”

Another repeat advisor, Pamela Klein, MD, founder and president of PMK BioResearch and former vice president of oncology at Genentech, said she particularly enjoys the teamwork of the Catalyst Awards process, which, she says, stimulates the rigorous discussion needed for great medical discovery.

“It’s personally satisfying to participate. I’ve been in academia. I’ve been in industry. I’ve been out as a consultant for many years. Each strength is different.”

A unique aspect of the award is that participating in one cycle isn’t necessarily the end for a project or researcher. Many researchers continue in subsequent cycles, adapting their projects based on the advice of previous consultants,

One of these is Laura van ’t Veer, PhD, a professor of Laboratory Medicine, whose development of a method to improve the detection of cancer cells by measuring kinase-activity was honed from earlier Catalyst review cycles.

“We’ve taken advice from our panels and applied it,” van ’t Veer said.

“The people they have as consultants are really experienced and understand what it means to do the translation. Academia can be a closed entity; whereas if a university wants to make sure its newest findings advance global health, then they need to be pushed into the commercial world.”

Two of the Fall 2014 advisors, Kenneth Fang, MD and Larry Hyman, JD MS, were honored as Outstanding Catalyst Advisors. Fang, CMO at diaDexus, has more than 25 years of experience as a physician-scientist, with corporate expertise in biomarker discovery and  diagnostic product development and commercialization.

Hyman, principal at Hyman IP Law and counsel at Canady + Lortz, has extensive experience in biotechnology patenting, strategic planning, technology licensing, intellectual property, due diligence, and portfolio management.

Growing Interest from Industry Partners

The number of advising consultants working with the Catalyst program has grown steadily since it started, with more than 180 participating this year, compared to 30 in the award’s first year. “This enthusiasm is a sign of the concept’s success in creating meaningful bridges between academia and industry”, said June Lee.

The program is a model platform for academic-industry partnerships at UCSF, Lee said.  Quest Diagnostics and MedImmune partner with the Catalyst program to support the development of research in the diagnostics and therapeutics tracks, respectively. The Quest partnership has expanded to a UCSF-wide collaboration to advance precision medicine. The MedImmune partnership, which supports broad areas of research, was highlighted by FierceBiotech as a notable academic-pharma alliances of 2014.

New Catalyst industry sponsors and partners include biotech giant, Genentech; and contract research organization, Surpass. Through the collaboration between the Catalyst Awards and UCSF’s Center for Digital Health Innovation, new digital health partnerships with GE Healthymagination and Qualcomm Life were also announced. See more below.

“I think the platform we’ve built to enable early stage research is really terrific", Lee said. “This is a new way for how we do academic-industry partnerships.”

Catalyst Awards 2014 Fall Cycle Winners

Ben Yeh, MD, “Biphasic-Enteric CT Contrast Agents;” a novel contrast agent that improves imaging quality to enhance the diagnosis of gastrointestinal disease.

Jean Pouliot, PhD, “AUTOmated Deformable Image Registration Evaluation of Confidence Tool (AUTODIRECT);” a software assessment tool that provides patient-by-patient feedback on the accuracy of deformable image registration (DIR).

Elliott Sherr, MD, PhD, “Development of a Blood-Based Biomarker for Autism;” which can be used to identify young children who are at-risk for autism and candidates for early intervention therapy.

Laura Van ’t Veer, PhD, Jean-Philippe Coppe, PhD, ”Functional Detection of the Targetable Oncogenic Kinome of Cancer;” a kinase-mapping tool for the diagnosis of malignant cells.

Shuvo Roy, PhD, “High-Efficiency External Ambulatory Lung (HEAL);” a wearable, external lung for adults and children. 

Ngoc Ly, MD, MPH, “Spiritus Mobile: A Portable Device to Monitor and Track Lung Function and Promote Asthma Self-Management;” a mobile application that connects with a spirometer for real-time sharing of lung function data with healthcare providers.

Corinna Zygourakis, MD, “TrueDoc:  Development of a Doctor-Focused Mobile App that Decreases Medical Costs;” a mobile application for surgeons that provides cost-of-care data comparisons with local and national peers.

Tejal Desai, PhD, Nano-Engineered, Non-Thrombotic Vascular Grafts