The “valley of death”—the lack of proof-of-concept funding for scientists who want to commercialize their research—continues to frustrate entrepreneurs at the University of California. There has always been a gap between the discovery phase, which the NIH will fund, and proven technology that can attract private investment. That gap has widened over the past few years because of the difficult funding climate in the VC world, especially for life science startups. That is why philanthropic support for QB3’s Bridging-the-Gap awards has been so vital.
The need is clear. Of the 11 projects that won Bridging-the-Gap awards between 2007-2011, nine have already been commercialized. This is an extraordinary success rate.
The award program has positioned QB3 as a global leader in innovative ways to commercialize life science research. In 2012 we expanded the program to include a corporate partner, Johnson & Johnson (which has since funded two additional startups). In 2013 our industry alliances director Neena Kadaba established Pfizer, Roche, Bayer and Novartis as partners in our new “Collaborative Startups” program, a mix of investment and partnership between big pharma and startups in our incubators. None of this would have been possible without philanthropic support.
A case study: Michael Marletta, Stephen Cary, and Omniox
Michael Marletta, a UC Berkeley professor of chemistry, and his postdoc Stephen Cary investigated how a widespread family of protein molecules bound to and released oxygen. In 2006 they came to QB3 to find out how to turn their research into a therapy, perhaps an inexpensive artificial blood supply. They had already approached venture capitalists and been rejected, but were unwilling to quit on their idea.
A Bridging-the-Gap award—the first in the program’s history—provided two years of funding with which they engineered a variety of novel proteins across a whole spectrum of strengths in binding oxygen. From these proteins, they identified agents suitable for different tissues and medical conditions. The award allowed them to pivot into cancer therapy.
Why cancer? Radiation remains an important treatment for cancer; sometimes, the only treatment. Radiation breaks oxygen into tumor-killing free radicals. Unfortunately, tumors contain much less oxygen than the rest of the body. Marletta and Cary hypothesized that their proteins could deliver oxygen to tumors and thus make radiation therapy more effective.
Cary incorporated a company, Omniox, to pursue funding from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The company has now raised $5 million from theNCI (including, in 2012, the only NCI Bridge Award made that year) and $1 million in private financing. Omniox, operating in the QB3 Garage incubator at UCSF Mission Bay, now employs eight scientists.
The San Francisco Business Times profiled Omniox on August 19, 2021 in a story titled “Omniox spreads its bets on oxygen-binding proteins,” and has covered the company’s evolution in several other articles.
Consider a gift to the Bridging-the-Gap fund
For every Omniox, the valley of death blocks dozens of potential therapies and solutions from making it out of the lab.
We seek visionary donors to join QB3 and the Rogers Family Foundation to support ideas that could transform health science. By donating to the Bridging-the-Gap awards, you will fill a vital, unmet need for entrepreneurial scientists who have powerful ideas but lack the seed funding for proof-of-concept work. An award could mean the difference between an idea languishing in a lab or finding its way into the lives of patients.
This report details our successes, but there are many discoveries that remain unrealized due to lack of resources. Very few people understand the shortcomings of today’s funding landscape and can appreciate the challenges our scientists face. Please join us in changing this paradigm through the power of philanthropy. Thank you for considering a gift to the Bridging-the-Gap fund.