Few people get a bigger whiff of the entrepreneurial spirit taking hold among biosciences faculty members than Thelma Tennant. “I walk down the halls of the lab buildings regularly,” Tennant said, “and I don’t think I’ve made it to a meeting without having someone come out a door and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been meaning to call you.’”
Tennant, whose doctorate is in cancer biology, is the oncology lead for technology commercialization in the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. For the past year, she’s also been one of several Polsky staffers embedded in the Duchossois Family Institute: Harnessing the Microbiome and Immunity for Human Health.
The Duchossois Family Institute was founded with a $100 million gift from The Duchossois Group Inc. Chairman and CEO Craig Duchossois; his wife, Janet Duchossois; and The Duchossois Family Foundation to accelerate research and interventions based on how the immune system, microbiome and genetics interact to maintain health. The entrepreneurial infrastructure includes commercialization specialists with a deep understanding of science and the path to market. Embedded within the DFI, they work closely with faculty and students to build strong patent applications and the relationships with investors and industry needed to successfully develop and license these technologies.
The new institute completes a pipeline that starts for some faculty with the Institute for Translational Medicine, a health research accelerator that offers seed funding and other support for UChicago researchers to explore dynamic ideas that could improve human health. The ITM provides a range of resources that enable scientists to do the research and get the early-stage data they need to attract investors and commercialize their work.
“The launch of the Duchossois Family Institute and Polsky Center’s new programs now gives our researchers with science-supported ideas someplace to go for health care startup expertise,” said Julian Solway, director of the ITM and dean for translational medicine. “We’re thrilled to work with such great allies to speed the innovation pipeline at the University of Chicago.”
One year, four new companies
The approach is working. “Over the last year we’ve had tremendous success,” said Matt Martin, Polsky’s microbiome lead for technology commercialization. “We’ve now put together four companies that wouldn’t have existed without this new model.”
The newly created microbiome-focused companies reflect the institute’s mission to develop a new science of wellness aimed at preserving health, complementing medicine’s traditional focus on treating sickness and disease:
- AVnovum Therapeutics, Inc., based on the work of Prof. Eugene Chang, is developing a new class of microbial peptides that maintain healthy fungal microbiomes by preventing virulence and infection.
- BiomeSense is creating the first low-cost, fully automated sensor for air and water microbial composition and detection. The company is based on the work of Jack Gilbert, faculty director of the University’s Microbiome Center, and Assoc. Prof. Savas Tay of the Institute for Molecular Engineering.
- Covira, based on the work of Prof. John Alverdy, executive vice chair of surgery, is developing a platform to reduce the risk of infection and other surgical complications. Unlike antibiotics, the strategy will work cooperatively with, instead of against, the patient’s microbiome.
- Oxalo Therapeutics, based on the work of nephrologist Hatim Hassan is developing a first-in-class oral therapeutic to prevent kidney stones. The therapeutic targets recurring kidney stones, approximately 75 percent of which consist of calcium-oxalate mixtures.
This recent success prompted the creation of the Polsky Life Sciences Launchpad, which also encompasses microbiome-based research in oncology and neuroscience at the University of Chicago Medicine. The Launchpad provides hands-on, end-to-end support for select translational, life sciences research projects. The goal: launch them into investable startup ventures.