Life Sciences Innovation Key for UT’s New Medical School Dean

1/28/14Follow @angelashah

It’s always been a little odd that the University of Texas at Austin—one of the nation’s largest universities and known for its top-tier research—does not have its own medical school.

The absence of one came about in a bit of political horse-trading toward the end of the 19th century. Texas voters agreed to allow the flagship campus of what was to be UT to be built in Austin, if the medical school would be located in Galveston.

At the time that made some sense, since Galveston was the state’s largest and wealthiest city. By contrast, Austin, then a modest village on the Colorado River, was home to just more than 11,000 people, according to the 1880 U.S. Census.

Flash forward to 2014, however, and the economic calculus has changed. Austin, with UT at its center, is now a tech powerhouse and a celebrated node of the information economy. Texas leaders decided the time has come for the campus to host its own medical school, an institution that could broaden healthcare services as well as be a catalyst for life sciences innovation and entrepreneurs.

Last week, UT Regents named Clay Johnston, the current associate vice chancellor of research at the University of California at San Francisco, as the first dean of UT’s Dell Medical School. He is also a practicing neurologist with a specialty in preventing and treating stroke.

Though classes won’t begin until the fall of 2016, Johnston starts his new post on March 1, when he will begin developing curriculum, hiring administrators and professors, and overseeing the building of high-tech classrooms and labs.

Johnston, who went to medical school at Harvard and interned at Massachusetts General Hospital, has had a special focus on life sciences innovation while in San Francisco. At UCSF, Johnston is the principal investigator of a $112 million clinical and translational science award from the National Institutes of Health and he leads the university’s Clinical Translational Science Institute and its Center for Healthcare Value. He plans to bring that expertise to UT, he says.

He’s still wrapping things up in San Francisco, so I spoke briefly with him briefly by phone on how the medical school can be a catalyst to propel life sciences innovation both in Austin and Texas, how institutions can better connect to life sciences entrepreneurs and the communities they take care of, and why he feels it’s still important to continue to see patients.

“We need to make we sure have resources to grow our innovation program, that we’re focused on how to make sure that the innovations that occur within the school have the greatest potential to improve health,” he says.

Xconomy: You are credited with building relationships with private sector and commercial partners to spur innovation in the medical school and its translation outside of it. What ideas or programs can you bring to UT from UCSF?

Clay Johnston: One of the things we thought important was to create an ecosystem with innovators in the community, and to have a freer discourse, and that we’re looking at barriers [to commercialization] together. We bring industry leaders in to help direct our program’s new innovations: Is there promise here? They serve as advisors to faculty who have ideas for healthcare products, and then we create teams around the best ideas and move them forward. It’s been a very successful program in creating relationships and an ecosystem in which there is a lot of discussion back and forth on what the areas are [that we should support commercialization.] It’s helped to focus our instructors who have translational goals and to see what’s coming down the pike in terms of new discoveries and ideas to allow private partners to join us.

X: What are the challenges you see to boosting life sciences commercialization in Texas?

CJ: Some of it is culture. The academic institutions are traditionally organized in a strange way. It gives a lot of power to individual faculty members and there’s very little central coordination between them. The conduits of communication are weak. Faculty lives in a grant culture. They get money but then they are left alone. Industry lives by timelines and deliverables; it’s more of a project management approach. That’s alien to faculty. Teaching each the approaches of the other camp is critical.

We in San Francisco are fortunate to have a whole entrepreneurial ecosystem and culture here that reinforces itself. It really started with universities, and they spawned some companies. Then the fact that companies are coming out of the area, it causes venture capital to come in. For Austin to catch up, you could look at specific areas in which opportunity is there. Digital health is one of those opportunity areas where Austin may be well suited. San Francisco has that, but digital health is not dominated by a specific location yet. It fits really well with the culture in Austin, which has a strong focus on technology.

X: Are you trying to foster an entrepreneurial spirit not typically associated with doctors?

CJ: I actually think that doctors are very entrepreneurial. But not in the constraints that they’ve been trained in. For them, to be entrepreneurial is [to ask], “How can I generate more revenue for my practice? Should I buy another MRI scanner and focus on higher reimbursement procedures?” The entrepreneurial mindset that I’d like our students more focused on is, “How do I enhance the health of the people that I treat and the value of the system that is treating them?” That’s what I want to get in their minds, a different kind of focus for entrepreneurship.

X: Why is it important for you to continue to see patients?

CJ: For me, seeing patients keeps me grounded. It reminds me why I did this. It’s gratifying to help people on a one-on-one basis.

Angela Shah is the editor of Xconomy Texas. She can be reached at ashah@xconomy.com or (214) 793-5763. Follow @angelashah

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