Sprout Grant Program looks for the next big ideas

Six teams awarded funding to move projects forward

Some of the winning teams include Jason Urton, Joshua Silverman and Bill DeRusha (left) who pitched Zen.do, a study tool with mobile potential; Erin Jonasson (center) who presented a method of conditionally stopping the action of essential genes in a model organism and Jared Auclair (right) whose team is working on halting the progression of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

Have the next innovation that could change the world? Fourteen Brandeis scientists think that they do, and recently pitched their work to a panel of industry experts in order to win part of a $50,000 grant created to grow their ideas.

The funding comes from the Brandeis University Virtual Incubator Sprout Grant Program, established to support work that moves university discoveries closer to market. It is financed by the Office of the Provost.

Nearly 60 scientists participated in the process, which is a big showing according to Irene Abrams, associate provost for innovation and executive director of the Office of Technology Licensing.

“Of those, more than half had never participated in commercialization activities — filed patents or been part of interacting with industry — at the university before, so I felt it was a huge success in terms of outreach and stimulating entrepreneurship on campus,” Abrams said.

The room was full of energy and a touch of nervous competition. For some, like Jared Auclair, a postdoctoral fellow in the Petsko/Ringe laboratory, it was the first time he’d taken center stage to present work that the team has spent years developing.

Each group was allowed five minutes to explain its project.

Auclair’s team is working on a way to aid in halting the progression of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Most frequently referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after its most famous victim, ALS typically causes death due to respiratory paralysis within three to five years of onset. The only approved drug, Riluzole, can extend the lifespan of some patients by three months.

“We believe one of the causes of ALS is the destabilization of a protein known as SOD1,” says Auclair. “We have identified initial compounds through computer-aided screens and biochemical assays [methods for measuring enzymatic activity], which stabilize SOD1.”

The team proposes to test for efficacy of one of the compounds in an ALS mouse model. The goal of the proposal, he says, is to determine if this identified compound can extend the survival of a mouse exhibiting symptoms of ALS.

“Our ultimate goal to translate these mouse studies into human clinical trials,” Auclair says.

Positive data from the tests will make this compound attractive to pharmaceutical companies who could license it from Brandeis.

“I was nervous, as I didn't really know what to expect,” says Auclair, whose team was one of the winners. “I tried to funnel that energy into my presentation...The most nerve-racking thing was to try to give a clear picture of our entire proposal in five minutes.”

His team, which includes professors Greg Petsko, Dagmar Ringe and assistant professor of chemistry Jeffrey Agar, was awarded $10,000.

Erin Jonasson, a biology graduate student in the Yoshida lab, presented a method of conditionally stopping the action of essential genes in a model organism.  Essential genes are necessary for life, so if this project works, scientists can begin to study the role of these genes in basic life processes.  The team will work first in yeast and then try to move towards mammalian cells.  The judges were excited that this project can be done in a year and then will be ready for licensing to a research reagent company.

Jonasson’s team was awarded $10,000.

“The Sprout Grant provides me a wonderful chance to see how the business and industry sides of science work and how they merge with academic research,” says Jonasson, who confessed that she is currently at a crossroads, considering whether to stay in academia or to venture into industry.

Rory Coffey and his team plan to target Ras, a mutated protein that has been found in 20 to 30 percent of cancers. 
“If successful, this grant will support the groundwork needed to justify screening for a drug that will use our mechanism and directly target mutated Ras for degradation,” says Coffey, whose team includes Marcus Long, Ruibao Ren and Liz Hedstrom.

Another team of presenters took to the computer lab.

Graduate students Bill DeRusha, Josh Silverman and Jason Urton presented Zen.do, a web-based interface that allows students and teachers to automatically build a study guide while taking notes. Information is pushed to users as needed, based on their progress and the priority of the information. Currently there are virtual flashcards. In development are images and a mobile phone application.

“Our aim is to put an end to students sitting down to cram, replacing studying with casual, constant learning focused on long-term retention,” says Urton.

Silverman, who taught information technology and English for a year after college, says he was discouraged by how quickly students forgot what they learned in the classroom.

“In an age of mobile computing this seemed like an addressable problem,” says Silverman, who is the lead web developer and researcher.

Urton says he and his team were excited to have their project chosen because the $5,000 award covers much of their technology costs for the next year and also provides them with validation.

Zen.do received $5,000.

“I think the Sprout Grant program was incredibly successful,” says Professor Eve Marder, chair of the biology department. “In fact, far more successful than I had expected. I was really impressed with the thoughtfulness and creativity shown by so many of the applicants.”

Judges included Eric Furfine '87, president of research and development for Eleven Biotheraputics, and chair of the Sprout Grant Judging Committee, and a member of Brandeis’ Scientific Advisory Council; Ann DeWitt, senior associate of Flagship Ventures; Meredith Fisher, director of technology and business development for Enlight Biosciences; Abi Barrow, director of the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center; Pito Salas, technology entrepreneur and Brandeis adjunct professor in computer science and Thomas Ittelson, a business plan expert and former director, intellectual property office at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

After the judges rated and reviewed the proposals, they were sent to the steering committee for final approval.

Abrams says that, since they had only $50,000 to work with, the judges had to turn down many excellent applications.

“The steering committee was concerned about under-funding,” says Abrams. “We chose to fund the top six at a level where they could achieve at least one of their major milestones.”

While the overall consensus for the first Sprout Grant has been extremely positive, Abrams is quick to say that there’s room for improvement. The next competition, she says, will allot more time for judge feedback and hopefully have heftier financing.

The Virtual Incubator, which launched in the spring of 2011, is the brainchild of Abrams. The idea is to foster entrepreneurial students and faculty in the sciences by providing education, mentorship, networking and small seed grants to help them move inventions from the lab to the marketplace.

Upcoming plans for Virtual Incubator include speaker/lunch meetings with serial entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, business attorneys and industry scientists. Abrams also is planning an end-of-grant event for next spring to highlight the progress of this year’s recipients.

Abrams, who joined Brandeis in 2006, spent nearly two decades at MIT as senior technology licensing officer. She says that one of her goals for Brandies is to build the entrepreneurial ecosystem to support the kinds of faculty-industry relationships that lead to technology commercialization.

2011 Sprout Grant winners:

  • Generation Of A Rapid And Efficient Protein Knockout System. Lead scientist: Erin Jonasson (with Satoshi Yoshida)
  • Identification Of Molecules For Stabilizing DJ-1, A Protein Involved In Parkinson And Alzheimer Diseases. Lead scientist: Joey Salisbury (with Brian Williams, Ala Nassar, Jeff Agar and Greg Petsko)
  • Targeting Oncogenic Ras For Protein Degradation, A Novel Approach To Therapy. Lead scientist: Rory Coffey (with Marcus Long, Ruibao Ren, and Liz Hedstrom)
  • Identifying Pharmacological Chaperones that Promote Survival in Mouse Models of ALS. Lead scientist: Jared Auclair (with Joey Salisbury, Dagmar Ringe, Greg Petsko, and Jeff Agar)
  • A Novel, Low Cost, Highly Sensitive Form Of Suppression PCR. Lead scientist: Ken Sugino (with Sean O’Toole and Sacha Nelson)
  • Zen.Do. Team: Bill DeRusha, Joshua Silverman, Jason Urton (Computer Science)

Categories: Research, Science and Technology

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