SFI Prize Winners Gain Experience in Silicon Valley


Patricia McGowan and Jerry Reen at the Irish Innovation Center, San Jose

Patricia McGowan, from Roscommon, and Jerry Reen, from Kerry were joint winners of a Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) competition specifically designed to encourage and enable post-doc researchers to commercialize their work.

The SFI, in conjunction with DCU Ryan Academy, recruited researchers to undertake an intensive course in business and marketing basics that lasted over two months. The course culminated in a demo day in which the participants pitched their projects to an especially convened panel.

The prize was a trip to Silicon Valley hosted by the Irish Technology Leadership Group based in the Irish Innovation Center in San Jose where this interview took place.

Patricia McGowan’s research is in the area of breast cancer therapeutics – looking for new targeted therapies for specific sub-types of breast cancer where there are currently no targeted therapies available for those patients suffering from the disease.


Patricia explains, “The SFI advertised for a course to bring SFI funded post docs on a course and open them up to entrepreneurship, technology startups; with lawyers, venture capitalists, people who had started their own companies and market researchers.

“Basically they showed us what what was out there. If you want to take and exploit your basic research – this is where you have got to go.”

Jerry Reen whose work focuses on cystic fibrosis pathogen – pseudomonas aeruginosa – the primary bacterium that kills those who have the disease.

“We are looking for strategies to stop that happening. We are also doing a lot of work with metagenomics which is a new area and is based on the idea that maybe we can see or work with only about 10% of bacteria that exists. The ocean has another 90% of bacteria that we cannot get our hands on.”

The metagenomic technique, “Allows us to get their genetic blueprint. We can’t grow them, we can’t see them but we can get their genetic information. That gives us access to new antibiotics, new signals, new chemicals that can control the bacteria that we want to target.

“Instead of going in there and trying to kill something like MRSA or E. coli you look for these new chemical messages, new antibiotics that would target those bacteria.”

Both Jerry and Patricia saw from their trip that there was a very real difference in the way a researcher regards their work to that of a person attempting to commercialize that research.

Jerry adds, “Yesterday we met with four startup companies at various levels of their progression. We met with the CEOs, the people who are heading up these companies. It was fantastic.

“A lot of this is about a mind change, having a different mind set. Basic research and commercializing basic research are two completely different mindsets.”

There is also the issue of pivoting. “A lot of the guys out here just want to know what our thing does. There are all these other applications that you may never even have thought of. So where you [go with it] is not where you thought. It’s worth its weight in gold to have access to that type of information.”

Another benefit from winning the prize was being able to plug into a whole new network of contacts; entrepreneurs, mentors and their associated networks.

According to Patricia, “If we want to take the next step we now have the connections ask questions, “Do I need to do this? Do I need to speak to a lawyer? Market research for the US – how do I do that?

“The idea is to think about our work and how we are going to commercialize it in the future and to have all our armoury in place early on.

“We are scientists by qualification. We don’t have a business background at all. We’ve been told all along not to go into this on our own so we would definitely get the right partners.”

While both Patricia and Jerry’s projects are still in their initial stages they have been given vital pointers in the right direction.

“At this point in time what we have is things that are not yet products.” Jerry says, “They are not yet ready to launch. What this is has done is that it has given us a roadmap. We’ve now got an insight into how do go from an idea to something that you can approach a company with.”

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