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How to Train an Entrepreneur? Wistar’s Newly Expanded Life Science Innovation Course is a Good Place to Start

November 29, 2022

For as far back as he can remember, Roger Malerba wanted to be a physician. He majored in biology at La Salle University and even shadowed doctors to learn more about orthopedic surgery, the specialty he planned to pursue.

But Malerba’s career plan got turned upside down his sophomore year when he opted to take a biology elective that sounded a little different from all the others—Life Science Innovation (LSI). The course taught La Salle undergraduates about technologies developed at The Wistar Institute and the many aspects of creating a biotech startup, such as intellectual property (IP) and financing. Then, it sets students loose to work in teams to create business plans around one of the technologies.

“It was eye-opening seeing all these different areas that are still in the greater healthcare industry, and that you can make an impact without being a physician or researcher,” Malerba says. He kept thinking about the course for months after the semester ended until one day, while studying for the MCAT, the admission test for med school, he realized that his heart was really in the business and technology world. Malerba is now the associate manager of business development and operations at Inventia Life Science.

The LSI course, which launched in 2016, has proven invaluable to students at a primarily undergraduate institution such as La Salle that do not have a large research enterprise to expose students to, says David Zuzga, Ph.D., the Wistar associate dean of biomedical studies. Zuzga created the course with Heather Steinman, Ph.D., M.B.A., Wistar vice president for business development and executive director of technology transfer when he was an assistant professor at La Salle.

This year the course, which is offered every spring, expanded to include undergrads from Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, as well as Wistar graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and interns in Wistar’s Business Development Office’s Wi-Stars internship program. Like La Salle, Cheyney, which is the nation’s first historically black college and university (HBCU), focuses on undergrad programs, and thus the LSI course offers a rare opportunity for its students to learn about biomedical research and the biotech sector.

For Wistar trainees who are already entrenched in the world of biomedical research, the course can help them see how to advance their discoveries beyond the bench. “We want the course to catalyze an entrepreneurial mindset in our trainees and for them to reflect back on how to translate their own research into the clinic and a potential commercial product,” Zuzga says.

It is a mindset that Zuzga had to acquire the hard way, when the university where he did his Ph.D. research filed for a patent for some of the discoveries he had made. Zuzga and his colleague navigated cofounding a cancer diagnostics startup, and even secured some initial financing and started a pilot study. Although the company fizzled out, Zuzga met Steinman, along the way and the two dreamt up the idea for the LSI course.

Each year, Steinman puts together a portfolio of different Wistar discoveries and technologies and Wistar scientists who were involved in the research meet with students in the class. Students and trainees divide up into several teams representing their respective institutions and the teams choose one of the technologies to use as the basis for their startup. In addition, a wide range of subject matter experts representing the entire path to commercialize biomedical technology—IP attorneys, market researchers and analysts, investors, clinical researchers, and others—present to the class in weekly online classes.

Throughout the semester, the teams develop a business plan, including potential commercial applications for the technology, and meet with faculty at their home institutions once a week to get feedback. The course culminates in a Shark Tank-style competition at Wistar. Teams pitch their plan to a panel of judges, most of whom are actual biotech investors, and the judges select a winning team from La Salle, Cheyney, and Wistar. The undergrads receive course credit and Wistar participants receive a certificate in entrepreneurship and life science innovation.

Malerba’s team captured the prize among the La Salle groups back when he took the course in 2018. The team—made up of five students, a mix of biology, business, and integrated science majors—decided to focus on DNA-based vaccines as potential therapies for HPV (human papillomavirus)-induced cervical cancer. They scoured research articles to become experts on the technology, and for the business plan, brainstormed about other virally induced cancers where the technology could be applied to broaden their business plan. Malerba fondly recalls how Zuzga shot down some of their ideas for a company name before his team settled on “Thera-T” (because the vaccines elicit a T cell response).

Although Malerba was disappointed not to spin a company out of their plan—a difficult feat, he notes, for a group of undergrads—he got something even more valuable from the course: connections. As soon as he decided to leave his med school path, he reached out to Steinman and investors who had presented to his class to learn about the path to work for life science startups and venture capital firms. “What I determined is that there’s not a right next step. You just take one and see what works and keep moving from there,” Malerba says.

For Malerba, the first next step was to complete the Wi-Stars Internship program led by Steinman to gain more experience in market research and analysis. Zuzga notes that taking the LSI course is now actually part of the Wi-Star internship. In addition, any Wistar trainee who completes the course can continue their education by participating in a new journal club led by Steinman that evaluates peer reviewed publications for IP potential.

Through his internship, Malerba met the chief operating officer of Inventia and got an offer for his current job where he is now helping grow the small life science instrument company. Malerba’s dream is to eventually create his own biotech startups, including one based on discoveries made by his good friend from the LSI course who decided to stay in academic research.

The LSI course is receiving support from generous donors, including the Justamere Foundation, an organization that provides non-traditional scholarships and grants for career education. “The support is absolutely vital as we have worked to scale up and include Cheyney participants and bring in more technology and resources,” Zuzga says. Philanthropic partnerships have allowed the course to include more faculty to guide the students and trainees, and to host the Shark Tank event at Wistar. (Before this year, it had taken place at La Salle.) Zuzga hopes to further expand the course to include other undergrad institutions in the area.

Along with its expanded scale, the LSI course has a new home at Wistar, in the recently opened Hubert J.P. Schoemaker Education and Training Center. The location has special meaning because Schoemaker licensed Wistar technology back in the 1970s and co-founded Centocor, the nation’s first biotech company. “We will use his story as a case study for the course in taking a basic discovery, launching a company, finding your way, and actually being successful and impacting patients around the world,” Zuzga says.