From Discovery to Patient

Responding to an unmet need, Wolfgang Knecht and Roland Martin founded the Therapy Development Accelerator (TDA) of the University of Zurich exactly three years ago to help researchers bridge the gap from academic discovery to solutions for patients. Now sustainably supported by the University of Zurich (UZH) Executive Board and the UMZH (Universitäre Medizin Zürich) and reporting directly to the VP Medicine Prof. Beatrice Beck-Schimmer, the TDA contributes to the UMZH’s mission of “ensuring excellent medical and health care for the public through its research”. Roch Ogier, Head of the TDA, looks back on the successful first three years and shares his vision for the future.

ZNZ News: What are the main support needs expressed by the researchers you meet?
Roch Ogier: “Funding” is the almost Pavlovian response. While this can be limiting, money is seen as a panacea. Often it is worth taking a step back and looking at the quality of the project – not only the science, but also the strategy, project management, and most importantly the team – as there may be good reason for the lack of funding. No matter how good the science, development and execution is what drives success or failure. In many cases, it comes down to soft skills which money will not change. Early awareness of “blind spots” and the humility to address them is key, be it through our personal coaching or through trainings. Regarding the latter, note that the Faculty of Medicine (IREM) runs an excellent curriculum (BioEntrepreneurship & Innovation program) that provides “hands-on” education and training and covers the essential skills and know-how (IP, business plan, regulatory, etc.) that will help you when creating a spin-off company.

Whom do you support at TDA and what do you offer as support?
We support anyone affiliated with the UZH with an idea for a future therapy (drug or medical device), diagnostic tool, or any innovation that can lead to better patient care. Researchers and clinicians from USZ, Kispi, Balgrist, PUK or UZH students, staff, faculty, or alumni can contact us. Our main work is coaching tailored to the needs of the project leader and team. Thanks to our background, we are able to bring researchers the patient, healthcare professional and societal perspective, i.e. how their innovation will be integrated in the healthcare system (clinical pathway, reimbursement, etc.). To clinicians, we can bring guidance regarding project management and the often-underestimated rigor of drug or device development. With most groups, we discuss funding sources, facilitate contacts with potential investors and industry partners, help with recruitment of team members and work with them to set up governance and address incorporation challenges (share split, negotiations, etc.). This can get quite emotional!

What is your vision for the future?
Promoting entrepreneurship has become quite standard in academia. As long as academic success is based on publication record, however, engaging in high-risk research and doing the hard work needed to actually translate discoveries into improved patient health and care may be not be favorable for one’s academic career. It is vital that we walk the talk. We recently described what this would entail (1), which can be summarized as follows: We need a change in academic culture – making translation an ethical obligation, clear career tracks with incentives beyond peer-reviewed publication, and hands-on expertise provided by academic translational centers such as the TDA.

How important are innovations in the field of biomedicine and medical technologies for UZH?
The recent UZH “Strategic Principles” (2) leave no doubt about UZH’s strong commitment to ensure excellent medical and health care for society. Approximately 70% of patents and spin-offs at UZH are in this field. Beyond the obligation to the patient and society, successful out-licensing and spin-offs are also a means of revenue generation for UZH; in US universities, for example, income from life science innovation licensing represents more than 90% of the total revenue (3). TDA has supported over 60 projects from the UZH so far and we know that there is a large unrealized potential, where the science is stellar, but the lack of entrepreneurial mindset and skills is the limiting step. There is lots of exciting work ahead for the TDA!

What support does UZH offer?

  1. Ogier and al., Academic leadership: (with)holding the keys to translational medicine? Nat Med 25, 1812–1813 (2019) PubMed Abstract
  3. Huggett B. Reinventing tech transfer. Nat Biotechnol 2014; 32:1184–91.