Medical research is not only conducted by professors in the hallowed halls of educational institutions. Other notable research bodies include privately funded research institutions, pharmaceutical companies, government, and nonprofit organizations. Industry labs have a targeted approach, often searching for a drug to treat a specific disease or to address a particularly lucrative problem in medical treatment. Additionally, industry research is funded by pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, who stand to profit from treatment advances. Projects are led with a top-down approach, sometimes limiting the opportunities to pursue interesting offshoots of a particular discovery. This is in contrast to academic labs, where principal investigators seek funds from an outside source and don’t profit directly from their work. They are free to pursue questions of biological interest, even if the monetary or medical relevance isn’t immediately obvious.
While it’s true that industry labs and academic labs generally have different motivations, they do share one overarching goal: to ameliorate human disease. Collaborations between these two distinct groups can therefore help both reach new heights and benefit society as a whole. Grant money or funding from industry can help finance academic research that has little immediate profit, while academia can provide the basic foundations for translational (and lucrative) industry work. Long-term collaborations can be even more beneficial, as academic experts can provide cutting edge expertise to industry partners for the development of drugs, treatments and cures.
Hopkins Fosters Research Partnerships
Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures (JHTV) helps connect industry partners with Johns Hopkins University faculty members, leading to advantageous results for both sides. In FY17, JHTV managed the creation of 125 new U.S. patents and 174 new agreements with industry. Some examples include new biomarkers for cancer and clinical tests, novel surgical methods, and updated methods for scientific and clinical study. The partnerships also help faculty members exchange research materials with industry partners, share confidential information for limited purposes or prevent conflicts of interest.
I spoke with Helen Montag, the senior director of business development and corporate partnerships at JHTV. I was curious as to how JHTV connects faculty members with industry partners. “We regularly look at our strengths as a university and then try to partner with industry whose efforts complement those of our faculty,” said Montag. “We also make ‘heat maps,’ which educate us about who on the industry side has what interests us and who has funding available for partnering. Additionally, we attend many conferences and meet one on one with companies to understand their future needs.”
Montag has been at Hopkins for almost 20 years. She says her recent work has been the most exciting “because there is strong support for entrepreneurship and industry collaborations. The current leadership ‘gets it’ and is very supportive of our efforts.”
For students hoping to get a taste of industry, Montag suggests attending JHTV events or reaching out to become interns or fellows in the office. “It will give you a taste of the interface between academia and industry, and having that experience will make it easier to jump off to the industry side,” she says. JHTV also runs the FastForward U program, which offers training, mentorship and resources for student entrepreneurs.
Fostering Lasting Collaborations
Even established faculty members can benefit from JHTV’s aid, Montag tells me: “We work hand in hand with faculty to make this easy. Sometimes faculty come to us with their own contacts and sometimes we suggest contacts to individual faculty. We try to focus on opportunities and logistics so faculty can focus on their science.”
Industry interactions with academia, conducted with the proper communication and a common goal, are fueling new biomedical innovations. The key to a collaboration’s success, however, lies not in its financial reward but in the creation of a lasting relationship between two parallel entities.