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MN-REACH Drives Medical Innovation, Entrepreneurial Culture

Researchers working in a lab

It takes one set of skills and knowledge to discover a new drug treatment or a medical device. It takes an entirely different set, however, to ensure that discovery makes it out of the lab and into the care of the patients it’s meant to help.

In May 2015, the University of Minnesota launched MN-REACH to help researchers with new health-related discoveries navigate the complex path from laboratory to market. Since then, the program, funded as one of three sites in the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hubs, has helped fuel the development and application of new diagnostic tools, medical devices, and pharmaceuticals, while training researchers to think as entrepreneurs to help their innovations succeed.

As MN-REACH enters its sixth funding cycle, Charles Muscoplat, Ph.D., co-principal investigator and member of MN-REACH leadership, said the program has instilled lessons that will help both current and future generations of researchers.

“The training provides researchers with a heightened understanding of how academic discoveries reach patients via the marketplace, who then communicate this knowledge to colleagues and students,” Muscoplat said. “We hope the legacy of information stemming from MN-REACH will help faculty and students move future discoveries to the marketplace faster, to reach patients sooner.”

Helping Projects Find Success

More than 30 projects have received a total of $3.4 million during the first five MN-REACH funding cycles. The sixth cycle’s awardees will be announced at the beginning of December.

Conducted by collaborative teams that include not only faculty but research staff and graduate students, the projects span discoveries in cell therapies, pharmaceutical drugs, therapeutic devices, diagnostic devices and software applications. Examples include a stem cell-derived therapy for type 1 diabetes, a device to aid in diagnosing lung cancer, and even a mobile app to reduce snoring.

Along with the funding support, MN-REACH provides coaching and skills development workshops to help faculty navigate subjects like intellectual property, venture capital, market assessment, and value propositions. The program also helps faculty interact directly with their invention’s intended users to get a better picture for how it can best benefit them and succeed in the market.

“MN-REACH coaching and skills development introduce researchers to the factors that play a critical role in translating a biomedical discovery into a beneficial and adopted clinical product—information they don’t typically receive during graduate or medical training,” said Amy Moore, Ph.D., MBA, consultant and MN-REACH project manager. “We hope that this awareness will motivate faculty to consider during their research not only the data that can lead to academic publication, but also the data needed for commercialization.”

To date, MN-REACH has supported the business strategy for 75 health care products; six industry partnerships, options, and licenses; and the planning of six startup companies.

A Culture of Entrepreneurship

Going forward, MN-REACH leaders hope to see federal funding for the program renewed. While it’s difficult to forecast what the NIH’s budget will look like in the coming year, Allen Levine, Ph.D., the U’s vice president for research, emphasized the need for medical innovation.

“Universities have always played a large role in bringing needed medical advances to the table, and this is only more important as the US population continues to age,” Levine said. “MN-REACH is one way that we at the U of M can build on our existing research capabilities, along with Minnesota’s long history of success in medical innovation, to bring new treatments and diagnostics to patients faster.”

Regardless of whether NIH provides continued funding, MN-REACH has already contributed to a shift in the U of M’s faculty culture, Levine said. The program has helped to cultivate a new, more entrepreneurial way of thinking about how research moves out from the laboratory and into society.

“It’s our responsibility not only to make new discoveries, but ensure those innovations move beyond the University to benefit the public good, both in Minnesota and beyond,” he said. “It’s gratifying to see a program that has had a real and observable difference in increasing faculty awareness of what it takes to reach the market.”

Kevin Coss

Kevin Coss

Kevin is a writer with the Office of the Vice President for Research.

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