ELI Fall 2016

Blavatnik Family Foundation Advances Innovation in the Life Sciences

Break-through scientific innovation has a long and valued tradition at Yale. William H. Prusoff, for fifty-eight years a researcher in the Yale School of Medicine, is widely known as the father of antiviral chemotherapy. In the early 1950s, he developed the first effective antiviral drug, and in the 1980s, with Yale colleague Tai-shun Lin, he resynthesized a failed cancer compound and revealed its effectiveness against HIV. The university licensed the patent to Bristol-Myers Squibb in 1986, which commercialized the compound as Zerit, a component of the first combination drug therapy for HIV. Millions of people have been treated with Zerit, and the therapy is credited with slowing the epidemic until more effective drugs were created.

Prusoff’s accomplishment—making a fundamental discovery and then applying it to an urgent need—continues to inspire Yale scientists in the life sciences. In 2003, for example, Craig M. Crews, the Lewis B. Cullman Professor in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, launched the biotechnology company Proteolix to shepherd his innovative drug Kyprolis through clinical trials. A potent anti-cancer drug that targets multiple myeloma, Kyprolis received FDA approval in 2012.

More recently, Yale biomedical engineer Rong Fan teamed with Sean Mackay ’14 MBA to launch IsoPlexis. This innovative company uses Yale-patented research as the basis of a novel diagnostic tool to track cellular immune responses in patients. Fan’s device isolates single immune cells within a population and analyzes their secreted proteins over time at a level of detail not previously achievable. These proteins offer a wealth of information to doctors and researchers—indicating, for example, the progress of a disease or a patient’s response to a drug therapy. The data captured by IsoPlexis is translated into actionable patient information, used to combat cancer, autoimmune disorders, and infectious diseases.

Bridging research and entrepreneurship

Now, a generous $10 million grant from the Blavatnik Family Foundation, headed by American industrialist and philanthropist Len Blavatnik, aims to accelerate the benefits of outstanding life sciences research at Yale by expediting the development, application, and commercialization of scientific breakthroughs. The fund will provide critical support to Yale investigators uniquely positioned to address many of today’s most pressing scientific challenges.

“Yale exemplifies the remarkable pace of growth and discovery in the life sciences,” said Blavatnik, who is also founder and chairman of Access Industries. “The Blavatnik Fund for Innovation will help Yale quicken the discovery-to-market pipeline and to nurture future leaders in scientific entrepreneurism.”

To accelerate the translation of basic research, the Blavatnik Fund for Innovation at Yale will seek out and support novel ideas and discoveries in the life sciences that have the potential for expeditious commercialization. Areas of particular strength for Yale include preventative medicine, the diagnosis and treatment of a wide variety of diseases, and the evaluation of therapeutic outcomes—work that has significant impact on improving the quality of life of for people throughout the world.

“I am deeply grateful to the Blavatnik Family Foundation, and especially to Len Blavatnik, not only for this exceptional support, but also for our shared commitment to entrepreneurship as a way to serve some of society’s greatest unmet needs,” said Yale President Peter Salovey ’86 Ph.D. “The fund will foster the next generation of leadership in innovation and help to translate Yale discoveries into real-world applications that can improve people’s lives.”

Promoting creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit

Launched in July 2016, the fund is under the leadership of Jon Soderstrom, managing director of the Yale Office of Cooperative Research (OCR). The fund is housed within OCR, which assists faculty members in translating their academic research into efficacious products that improve the health and prosperity of the global community.

“The Blavatnik Fund will provide strategic and dedicated resources to Yale faculty members who are developing commercially relevant research,” Soderstrom said. “With this essential support, we will be able to transform new discoveries into marketable tools, treatments, drugs, and devices that have the potential to tremendously impact people’s lives.”

Soderstrom and OCR colleague Erika R. Smith—recently named as director of the fund—are currently soliciting proposals from life sciences faculty members across the university. They will then evaluate the proposals based on their scientific merit, potential for technology transfer, and capacity for commercialization. An external investment-advisory committee, comprised of venture capital experts and leaders from the biopharmaceutical industry, will provide expert review and offer guidance as to which research projects should receive funding and in what amounts.

During the program’s initial year, Soderstrom anticipates that between five and ten research proposals will be funded. The Blavatnik Fund will be structured as a sustainable program, with a portion of revenues earned in the first years reinvested to support future generations of projects.

The multi-year grant also establishes the Blavatnik Fellows Program, which will connect a select group of young professionals to Yale researchers, along with a network of inventors, venture capitalists, and business leaders. The Blavatnik fellows will provide researchers with the technical and business skills needed to prepare discoveries for the marketplace, even as they themselves develop into the next generation of leaders in scientific entrepreneurship.

The fund is the most recent commitment to life sciences research by the Blavatnik Family Foundation, an active supporter of leading educational, scientific, cultural, and charitable institutions throughout the world. In 2013, the foundation directed a $10 million grant to Yale immunobiologists Ruslan Medzhitov and Richard Flavell, whose path-breaking studies of inflammation and chronic disease promise a paradigm shift in our understanding of human disease and its treatment.