Yale-UConn accelerator puts Connecticut on the biotech map

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Yale and the University of Connecticut are Connecticut’s most highly funded research universities, bringing in around 93% of NIH grant funding to the State. But despite this rosy picture, bringing new clinical treatments to consumers remains a hard won prize.

PITCH – the Program in Innovative Therapeutics for Connecticut’s Health, a State funded partnership between Yale and UConn - is addressing this need by accelerating faculty spin out projects based on big ideas for new medicines.

By providing a pathway for researchers to find new, potentially life-saving therapeutics based on their discoveries in the lab, PITCH is bringing real-world insight to academia, says Janie Merkel, director of the program and of the Yale Center for Molecular Discovery.

“One aspect that distinguishes PITCH is the tangible connections it creates between faculty labs, investors, and funders. We don’t just provide the opportunity for connections – we literally make the connections happen,” she said.

Since funding began in January 2016, PITCH has channeled as much as $600,000 per project to 21 projects with the potential to treat cancer; bacterial, viral, and fungal infections; and inflammatory autoimmune conditions. Investments have also been made in state-of-the-art research equipment, from tools to transfer tiny liquid droplets using sound to new chemical libraries for drugs used in clinical trials.

Pitching scientific breakthroughs requires experience and sometimes hundreds of meetings before a prototype drug can be developed. The program takes a hands on role in working with faculty to help them speak “investor language”, while also interpreting the science to enable investors to identify medical products.

Working with a hands-on advisory board with members drawn from industry and investing, science projects are shepherded into tangible deliverables that interest investors.

For Jesse Rinehart, working with PITCH has streamlined what can otherwise be a needle in a haystack experience. “Before my work with PITCH I had zero experience pitching to investors. I went from 0 to 60 in about two seconds,” said the associate professor of cellular and molecular physiology at the Yale Systems Biology Institute.

“Engaging with individual investors is a full time job and a huge distraction for faculty. Having the opportunity to present to the powerhouse of investors mustered in a single day by PITCH is a tremendous benefit.”

Securing non-dilutive funding to take the next steps towards commercialization is proving equally valuable. “PITCH’s investment helped provide very persuasive data that, in turn, enabled us to receive further funding from the State,” said Michael Lynes, professor and head of the department of molecular and cell biology at UConn.

An early look at scientific projects and a chance to give feedback is also helping investors with what they need to fund new companies.

Preston Noon from Agent Capital underlined the benefits from seamless collaborative events, particularly the opportunity to “hear from so many of the PITCH programs together” - and by simply being with other investors as part of an exciting incubator event. 5AM Ventures’ Jason Ruth cited value in the way the program is coaching scientists to present their work “in a way that makes sense to investors.”

“It was a fantastic day of presentations and I’m glad to have been able to attend,” said Imran Babar, Ph.D. from OrbiMed, of a recent event connecting the moving parts needed to propel new ideas for new medicines. “PITCH is helping investors with the decision-making data they need for high risk-high reward scientific ideas.

“The ultimate goal is to increase biotech startups in Connecticut, recruiting additional venture investment to the state, that puts Connecticut squarely on the map with a new paradigm for drug discovery,” concludes Merkel.

“It’s extremely hands on and we feel major accountability at each step.”

Contact Jon Atherton (jon.atherton@yale.edu)