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Blavatnik Fund awards grants for innovation

May 15, 2017
by Brita Belli

Several faculty members won research grants from the Blavatnik Fund for Innovation at Yale at the fourth annual Yale Innovation Summit on May 10. The summit, presented by the Office of Cooperative Research (OCR) and Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, provides a window into an expanding entrepreneurial ecosystem at Yale, particularly around biotech and tech discoveries.

Nearly 600 people, including representatives from more than 35 venture capital firms, attended the daylong event, which included panel discussions, keynote speeches, pitch contests, and an outdoor poster session.

“The Yale Innovation Summit has quickly become a capstone event,” said Jon Soderstrom, Ph.D., OCR’s managing director, “and it’s drawing attention inside and outside Yale—both for the number of transformative breakthroughs in progress at Yale and the impressive rise in startup success stories.”

The event came just days after the co-founders of one Yale-born biotech company, Biohaven Pharmaceuticals, rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange and raised $168M in an IPO. Biohaven, one of the summit’s sponsors, is developing drugs for neurological diseases and rare disorders. Many faculty are eager to follow in their footsteps, including the 17 finalists of the Blavatnik Fund—a new $10M gift from the Blavatnik Family Foundation that is bridging the gap between breakthrough life science discoveries and high-impact products.

“I have a particular interest in encouraging scientific innovation,” said Len Blavatnik, founder and chairman of Access Industries, who supported the fund, “and Yale is obviously a perfect base for finding new ways to invest in the future of research and entrepreneurship.”

Yale President Peter Salovey announced the winners of both the Blavatnik Awards and the event’s Biotech and Tech Pitch Contests, saying “Yale is breaking down barriers to discovery and innovation.”

In his keynote address, Gerald Chan, a philanthropist and co-founder of Morningside Group, praised the display of innovative thinking evident across Yale and called for even greater nurturing of entrepreneurial interest among faculty and students. University research, he said, has become “an engine in the economy,” adding “I celebrate the translation of research as a public good. Engagement with the biotech community does not violate the university’s self-conscious mandate to be for the good of society.” He called the relationship between university researchers and the investment community “symbiotic,” a point very much on display as connections were forged throughout the day-long event.

Awards of $300,000 from the Blavatnik Fund for Innovation at Yale went to the following faculty members:

Alanna Schepartz, Ph.D., the Milton Harris ‘29 Ph.D. Professor of Chemistry, and professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, for a technology for trafficking diverse protein materials into the cytosol and nucleus with high efficiency and intact form to deliver personalized therapeutics.

Anton Bennett, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and of comparative medicine, for developing a chemical drug design platform to establish rich intellectual property for a first-in-class therapeutic for the treatment of fibrosis which accounts for nearly 45 percent of all deaths in the developed world.

Stephen Strittmatter, M.D., Ph.D., the Vincent Coates Professor of Neurology, professor of neuroscience, for developing select inhibitors to slow, halt, or reverse the course of Alzheimer’s disease.

Andrew Xiao, Ph.D., assistant professor of genetics, for developing therapeutics around a novel epigenetic mechanism aimed at end-stage tumors that are resistant to standard therapies.

Pilot grant awards in the amount of $100,000 went to the following faculty:

Yale is obviously a perfect base for finding new ways to invest in the future of research and entrepreneurship.

Len Blavatnik

W. Mark Saltzman, Ph.D., the Goizueta Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Chemical and Environmental Engineering and Physiology, and Michael Girardi, M.D., professor of dermatology, for a multi-functional bioadhesive nanoparticle platform that has the potential to revolutionize the suncare industry.

Anna Marie Pyle, Ph.D., the William Edward Gilbert Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, and professor of chemistry, for developing a proprietary class of molecules to be used as tumor vaccines.

Elliott Brown, M.D., assistant professor of radiology and of biomedical imaging, for a novel bone marrow aspiration device that limits blood contamination and maximizes stem cell recovery while also increasing the area of bone sampled 45-fold compared to current devices.

Andrew Miranker, Ph.D., professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, for advancing a small molecule that is water soluble, non-toxic, and crosses the plasma membrane, and can work in conjunction with existing diabetes drugs to improve long-term b-cell health.

Winners of the biotech pitch contest were:

First Place ($5,000): Exolva, cell-permeable miniature proteins that can deliver better medicine. The team included Schepartz, and Rebecca Wissner, Ph.D., postdoctoral candidate in chemistry.

Second Place ($2,000): ChitRx, engaging chitinases in the treatment of asthma. The team included Geoffrey Chupp, M.D., professor of medicine (pulmonary).

Third Place ($1,000): Sidera Medicine, targeting stem cell-like, invasive subpopulations of glioblastoma and melanoma with a new generation of highly selective small-molecule kinase drugs. The team included Jesse Rinehart, Ph.D., associate professor of cellular and molecular physiology; and Farren Isaacs, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental Biology.

Winners of the tech pitch contest were:

First Place ($5,000): Alva Health, a wearable device for early stroke detection. The team included Kevin Sheth, M.D., associate professor of neurology and of neurosurgery; Sandra Saldana-Ortega, Ph.D. ’17; Hitten Zaveri, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology; and Ronald Coifman, Ph.D., Philips Professor of Math and Computer Science.

Second Place ($2,000): Rio Medical, an off-the-shelf filter that plugs into standard IV lines and purges gas from infusions. The team included Saldana-Ortega and Sandra Lynne Fryhofer, a J.D./M.B.A. candidate.

Third Place ($1,000): Trellis, a network survey app that allows users to track and manage teams to improve productivity. The team included Nicholas Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., director of the Human Nature Lab and co-director of the Yale Institute for Network Science; Thomas Keegan, Ph.D., executive director of Yale’s Human Nature Lab; and Mark McKnight, Web Developer at the Human Nature Lab; and Marcus Alexander, Ph.D., a scientist in the lab.

Submitted by John Curtis on May 12, 2017