SPARK is a partnership between academia and industry that helps faculty and students within the Stanford University School of Medicine develop and commercialize their inventions.
It’s based on my experience trying to develop some tools I created that I thought might be drugs or drug leads. No companies wanted to license the technology, and colleagues warned me not to start a company to do it myself. They said, “Industry is out to get you; all they do is take your ideas and shove you away.”
I decided to move forward anyway, so I founded the company and planned to work at it for one year. I came back to Stanford after that year, but I stayed involved with the company for 11 years until it was acquired by Amgen.
I was really struck by how wrong my notions – and those of my colleagues – were about industry. I also realized that most of our students were going to work in industry, and that as a university, we were doing a very bad job of teaching and preparing them for those careers. I also feel we have a responsibility to do something to develop our inventions if we think they might help patients.
So I decided to start a program to help others develop inventions that were sitting on the shelf for lack of interest. I recruited advisors I had worked with during my time in industry, and many of them have been coming to Stanford every Wednesday night for eight or nine years as volunteers.
How does it work?
The inventors are faculty or students at Stanford who have come up with novel drug targets, new chemical entities or potential new uses for existing drugs. They meet weekly with outside advisors from industry.
We provide very little funding but we provide a lot of advice and real experience. We guide the scientists in developing their idea, starting from an initial scientific discovery, into a program that is more likely to be picked up by industry. That includes developing a target product profile and experiments that actually increase the value of the invention.
Is it successful?
The program is finishing its ninth year, and 64 teams have completed their training. Of the 64, 30 have entered clinical studies, 22 new companies were founded and seven technologies have been licensed to existing companies. Overall, we have a 57 percent success rate.
SPARK provides much needed guidance to help inventors develop projects that meet industry’s interest in addressing unmet clinical needs, and it helps educate the future workforce in what drug development is, and how intellectual and exciting and really challenging it is. And it also helps make all my colleagues ready for the next time they have a discovery that may have value for patients. After all, it’s our social responsibility. We get the money from the public, so it’s a way to pay back.