Harvard Launches New Biomedical Fund Round—Hires CombinatoRx Co-Founder to Help Run Effort
I was at the Power, Drugs, & Money conference in Boston yesterday (put on by the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge), as part of a panel discussing the New England innovation landscape, when the question of Harvard University’s tech transfer and spinoff performance came up. Our moderator—Xconomist, former gubernatorial candidate, and venture capitalist Chris Gabrieli—mentioned how he felt the school had under-performed on this front (there was some audience dissension on this point). He also asked how many in the audience felt there was a general lack of seed and early stage investment in tech companies in New England (very little dissension on this front—you should have seen all the hands shoot up).
Now, we had some good discussion around these issues. But an announcement today from Harvard’s Office of Technology Development seems particularly timely: the school is launching a second round of investments by the Technology Development Accelerator Fund it started last year to push university biomedical and life sciences advances toward commercialization. It is even putting some real-world startup knowledge behind the effort—by hiring Curtis T. Keith, a co-founder and senior vice president of Cambridge, MA-based biotech firm CombinatoRx, to serve as the fund’s chief scientific officer responsible, in part, for managing the funded projects and helping ensure they meet development milestones. Keith will remain a member of CombinatoRx’s scientific advisory board.
So, in one swoop, Harvard is addressing both of the issues raised by yesterday’s panel, at least to a degree. It’s getting ever-more serious and aggressive about tech transfer—and it’s also acting more like a seed or pre-seed investor, although to be clear, the fund is not a venture pool and the private donors contributing to it get no return on their money—just the satisfaction of knowing that their donations go directly toward helping the school advance the state of health and medicine.
Harvard formed the Accelerator Fund last year with $6 million in private donations. The idea, says spokesman B.D. Colen, is to raise $10 million in private contributions and make the fund self-sustaining. The fund has already completed its first round of investments—putting a total of $1.3 million into six projects spanning cancer, diabetes, and HIV, among other things. Now it is soliciting school faculty for more projects to fund, intending to invest a like amount in the second round. That’s not a lot of money, to be sure, but the money is aimed at a strategic point in the commercialization pipeline where it is hoped a little will go a long way. The fund, according to the announcement, “is structured to provide Harvard scientists with the financial resources needed to traverse the development gap and generate the confirmatory data required to attract commercial partners.”