Funding innovative technologies to revolutionize cancer research

Please can you introduce yourself and tell us about your role at the National Cancer Institute?

My name is Michael Weingarten and I am the director of the National Cancer Institute’s Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR). This program was actually started by Congress back in 1982. It is really like a seed program for small biotechs in the cancer space at the NCI.

We fund the next generation of technologies that companies are developing for detecting and treating cancer. That is a very broad-based portfolio project. At any given time we are funding 400 to 450 different projects dealing with areas such as drug development, devices, diagnostics, research tools, and other key areas in treating cancers.

Can you tell us about some of the latest projects that you were involved in as a director of the Small Business Innovation Research Development Center?

One of the things that we do at the NCI is provide funding for these startup companies, which is crucial to their existence because we are the first source of funds that allow these companies to look forward when they are first getting started. The funding is critical, but most of these companies are five people or fewer, and so they need access to a lot of other resources in addition to just the funding. We are always looking for new programs we can start that really help meet a key need.

One program that we just launched this past year is called our concept award. The whole goal behind the concept award is to fund transformative new technologies that can have a major impact in areas like pediatric and rare cancers.

This is the first type of this award that has ever been done at the NIH. It is totally based on funding highly innovative projects, not just incremental innovation. The goal is to really transform the way we treat pediatric and rare cancers, looking for out-of-the-box ideas from companies and new approaches that have not been tried before for both pediatric and rare cancers. That is just one example, but we have got a whole range of other programs like that.

As cancer cases continue to rise across the globe, why is it more important than ever to develop these new technologies to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer?

I think that the key thing here is the opportunity to detect a cancer earlier so that it does not have the opportunity to advance in the person. Then you have that much more of a chance to actually treat it and cure the cancer. The earlier we can detect, the earlier that we can treat. The NCI’s mission is early detection and treatment of cancers so that we can help patients.

The SBIR program is a key component to that, but so is all the rest of the work that the NCI is doing. Most of our funding goes into basic research on cancers. We fund a lot of academic research on cancers. A lot of those investments in academic research yield new technologies that are spinning out of academic laboratories.

The whole goal behind the SBIR program is to help take some of those academic innovations, spin them out into small businesses, and then fund the small business to advance the technology all the way to the patient so that the patient can then be treated. It is kind of a continuum of investments from the NCI to advance all these promising new technologies.

You are involved in many innovative projects at the NCI. What do creativity and innovation look like to you within science?

That is a multifaceted question. In terms of creativity, we are always looking at where we can have the greatest kinds of impacts, both in terms of technology development and in terms of the resources that we offer to a small business. That includes funding the next generation of technologies that can really have an impact on the field, whether that be in drug development, in diagnosing cancers earlier, or in a whole range of strategies for how we go about treating those cancers. We are always looking to fund that next innovation that is really going to have an impact on the patient.

In addition to that, creativity involves looking at the needs of all these young startup companies. That includes providing, for example, connections with investors. With the SBIR program, we provide that early-stage funding from the government where we are willing to take on risks that maybe the private sector would not take on. That is what really makes the SBIR program different and special – we fund very high-risk, early-stage research.

As the technologies in these companies advance, they need to be able to raise investor capital in order to move that technology towards commercialization. Over the last 15 years, we have developed relationships with all the major investors in cancer in the private sector. We help connect our early-stage small businesses with those investors so that our companies can then help raise the capital they need to move their promising technologies all the way to commercialization, and ultimately towards patients.

Another thing that we do is provide key access, for example, to training that the small businesses need. We run a program called I-Corps, Innovation Corps, which really teaches companies how to build a business model around the technology that they have developed. For academic innovators, that is really important because they spent all their time in the labs.

They need to learn about how you go about running a business and not just developing technology, but moving that technology all the way to the marketplace? That is what I-Corps does. It teaches them how to build a business model in order to make that happen. Those are just some examples of how we impact creativity.

One initiative that you have recently launched at the NCI is the NIH I-Corps pilot program. Could you tell us a bit more about this program and how it works?

I-Corps takes teams very soon after they have received their first funding from us. We run this program for the NIH as a whole, so as well as running it at the NCI, we run it at 23 other institutes cutting across all different disease categories.

Typically, for the participating teams in I-Corps, we require a three-person team that involves the innovator and an industry expert who really knows the industry that they are targeting. Then it involves a corporate decision-maker on the team, someone who can actually take the recommendations and the learnings from the training they receive through this program and actually go out and implement them.

I-Corps works over an eight-week program. These companies go out and conduct over a hundred different interviews with stakeholders and customers in the market that they are targeting.

By doing that, they really understand what part of the marketplace their technology can have the greatest impact in. By talking to the real stakeholders, you can really understand that there are a whole plethora of areas where you could target a technology. By talking to customers and key decision-makers in a given market, you can really understand where each technology can have a major impact.

Because they do that type of research, it helps launch them to the next stage of the company where they know how they should be investing the resources of the company and what market they should be targeting in order to have the greatest impact on patients.

We have been offering this program now since 2014, and we have had over 250 different teams that have been trained across all different disease categories. What we found is that those companies that have gone through the I-Corps program, have gone on to become quite successful. They have been able to raise a lot of private funding to continue the development of their technologies to supplement the funding that they get from the NIH.

Often new initiatives, research and technologies rely heavily upon funding. How important is funding to the advancement of fields such as cancer research?

Funding is critical. If you talk to a lot of the companies that receive funding from us, most of them will tell you that if it was not for the SBIR program, they would not actually be here. Because when they are first starting out, they are fairly risky companies and it is very difficult when you are a high-risk, small business to be able to go out and raise private capital.