Startup expansions show how UChicago researchers are bringing their work to society

Three ‘exits’ in a row by UChicago startup companies demonstrate broadening reach

The University of Chicago is renowned for its commitment to field-defining basic research—work that can lay the foundation for development of new products, services and solutions. The Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation is the central resource for transferring these groundbreaking ideas and discoveries outside the University to the world at large. In just the last two months, this work has been exemplified by a string of exits—a business term meaning beginning the next phase of growth—by three UChicago startups: Pyxis Oncology, Explorer Surgical and NowPow.

An exit marks a new phase for a company as it grows and early investors see a return on their money, typically through an initial public offering of stock, a merger or an acquisition. 

“These are compelling ideas that are changing the world: Treating cancer. Delivering better health care more efficiently. Providing resources to those in need,” said Juan de Pablo, vice president for national laboratories, science strategy, innovation and global initiatives at the University of Chicago.

“When faculty and students come up with ideas that will help millions of people, the University must make sure that these ideas reach society,” he said. “The fact that these companies are worth millions of dollars serves to emphasize that they have developed solutions that people care about. It also serves to remind us that markets place a value on the efforts of these researchers.”

Tumor treatments and health care improvements

In early October, Pyxis Oncology announced the pricing of its upsized initial public offering—the process in which a company's owners sell a portion of the firm to public investors. Proceeds from the IPO are expected to be $168 million. The announcement followed the close of its $152 million Series B funding round and a worldwide licensing agreement with Pfizer—also important milestones in both company growth and in the journey of discoveries from the laboratory to improved health for patients.

The company was founded around novel tumor biology built on the work of Thomas Gajewski, the AbbVie Foundation Professor of Cancer Immunotherapy in Pathology, professor in the Ben May Department for Cancer Research and a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago.

Gajewski, who oversees Pyxis’ scientific advisory board, noted that optimizing this interaction between academia and industry has led to an accelerating pace of “discovery to patient” over the last five to ten years. “That’s good for all of us as humans and citizens of the world,” he said, “and it is fun to be in the middle of it.”

The preclinical oncology company focuses on developing an arsenal of next-generation therapeutics to target difficult-to-treat cancers and improve quality of life for patients—and the IPO brings it one step closer toward testing its lead candidates in the clinic, said Gajewski.

Founded in 2015 by Chicago Booth alum Jennifer Fried, MBA’15, and former University of Chicago faculty member Alex Langerman, Explorer Surgical also announced in October that it has been acquired by Global Healthcare Exchange (GHX).

The company aims to help the health care ecosystem to move faster, operate more intelligently, and achieve greater outcomes.

“There is no better place to start and build a company than at The University of Chicago,” said Fried. “The University’s interdisciplinary approach to innovation is the single reason that Explorer exists today. The University has supported us in every step of our journey, from our initial research funding to direct investments into every financing round,” she added.

Also bringing together world-class expertise from Chicago Booth and cutting-edge research from UChicago Medicine, NowPow in September was acquired by Unite Us, the nation’s leading technology company connecting health and social care services.

Founded by Stacy Lindau—the Catherine Lindsay Dobson Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Professor of Medicine-Geriatrics at the University of Chicago—and Rachel Kohler, MBA’89, NowPow is a referral platform grounded in science and community.

The Chicago-based company combined with Unite Us will create the nation’s leading integrated health and social care network connecting people to these resources. “We both hope that this success signals to other faculty entrepreneurs that putting your company headquarters on the South Side of Chicago is a pathway to success, and we hope others will follow suit,” said Lindau, speaking to the acquisition.

‘We are incredibly proud’

“This series of exits signals to the world the extraordinary work being done at the University of Chicago and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in moving groundbreaking work from bench to bedside—benefitting humankind,” noted Jay Schrankler, associate vice president and head of the Polsky Center.

“As startups are acquired or have an IPO, it is inspiring to know the work continues to serve an even larger population in need of new solutions, medical treatments, and other innovations that are changing the way we live,” added Schrankler. “We are incredibly proud of all our faculty and students, and the time they commit to bettering the world.”

According to the Association of University Technology Managers’ most recent Annual Licensing Activity Survey, which polls US universities, hospitals and other research institutions, the Bayh-Dole Act has spurred nearly 300 new drugs and discoveries that have driven the innovation economy—contributing $1.7 trillion to the US gross industrial output and adding more than 5.9 million jobs.

“Our business development and licensing associates, and the Polsky Center as a whole, are dedicated to supporting faculty entrepreneurs as they look to take their innovation beyond the four walls of academia. It is the public that will ultimately benefit from these innovations,” said Bill Payne, executive director of science and technology at the Polsky Center. “To have a series of three exits and several new startups founded this past year means we are on the right path to translating the hard work of this University to society at large.”