Columbus CEO: Gene therapy, inventions at Nationwide Children’s Hospital spurring spinoffs

By Kathy Lynn Gray

For most central Ohioans, Nationwide Children’s Hospital is where they take their kids when accidents happen or disease strikes. Few realize that within its growing footprint, researchers are finding ways to combat illness and are sharing those finds with the world through Matt McFarland’s office.

McFarland heads up the hospital’s Office of Technology Commercialization, created in 2008 to help transfer researchers’ innovations to startup or existing companies for commercialization.

“The research enterprise that goes on here is pretty big, and when we have innovations that could benefit the greater good, we should do our best to transfer that into the public sector,” McFarland says. “As a research institute, to attract the best and the brightest in their fields, we need to have this capability fully developed and competitive.”

If not, McFarland says, some leading researchers won’t come to Children’s.

A decade ago, the commercialization office received about 20 inventions a year from hospital researchers and developed deals to take two to market. As the research facility grew and the commercialization office expanded, those numbers grew to 94 inventions and 19 deals in 2018.

McFarland and his staff work closely with researchers as projects advance, offering advice on how innovations can be externally funded, licensed and moved to market. They also work hand-in-hand with potential licensees to structure deals that make sense for each opportunity, sometimes in creative ways to move a deal along.

The efforts have been fruitful financially. Revenue in the years prior to 2012 was less than $500,000, but shot to $36 million in 2017 and was $11.5 million last year. Inventors receive some of the bounty and most of the rest is used for further research.

The hospital also provides funding and other assistance for innovations that are promising but not advanced enough to attract investors. “Several of our gene therapies have benefited from that infrastructure, allowing us to move the technology to a later stage of development, and that gives us a better chance of finding a viable commercial partner,” McFarland says. Those principles now are being applied to cell therapy and to regenerative medicine or tissue engineering.

Among McFarland’s successes are Myonexus Therapeutics, which has licensed five gene therapies for limb girdle muscular dystrophies from Nationwide Children’s; Little Seed, formed to promote a game system developed by Children’s clinicians and game designers that distracts children during medical procedures; and Deep Lens, a startup that allows pathologists to study digitized slides rather than specimens under a microscope.

Rev1 Ventures, a Columbus organization that connects startups and corporate innovation teams, has been a strong partner in Children’s efforts, including with Myonexus. “When Children’s has a discovery, we want to get that out into the marketplace to help cure children,” says Tom Walker, Rev1 CEO. “There’s only so far you can carry these novel discoveries in the research lab.”

One avenue has been a $5.5 million life-science fund at Rev1 made up of Rev1, Children’s and the Ohio Third Frontier. Its sole purpose is to identify opportunities to spin out companies from Children’s research.

Researcher Lara McKenzie, an associate professor in the hospital’s Center for Injury Research and Policy, says she knew nothing about how to move a product to market when she and a team of researchers wanted to produce a kid-safe spray nozzle for household cleaning products. “The commercialization office made the process very easy and really helped shepherd things along,” McKenzie says. Ohio State University design students and staff helped design a prototype, and McKenzie’s group got a patent in 2014. Now they’re seeking a partner to fund the invention’s production. McFarland expects continued growth in commercializing hospital inventions.

“We have started reaching into the hospital side and finding innovation that’s occurring so that we can apply research commercialization principles there,” he says. Two devices developed by clinicians already are on the market.

He also expects much more from researchers.

“I think you’re going to see growth in cell therapy and regenerative medicine quite a bit out of Children’s over the next couple of years,” he says. “There’s an opportunity right now for Ohio to play a significant role in biotech. They might look to this particular location in the Midwest as a fertile place to go. And as a hospital we want to be doing our part to help tell that story and to help realize that opportunity.”

Kathy Lynn Gray is a freelance writer

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