Innovation and Disruption

What’s Behind an Innovative Tool?

May 15, 2017 1:10 pm

Boston Children’s Hospital helps in-house innovators bring new technologies and treatments to market using a faculty-friendly approach.

Parents know to reach for the thermometer when their child feels clammy or looks sluggish. But the next steps are less clear. What should they do if their child has a slight fever versus a high fever, for example? 

Giving parents better answers based on their child’s age, symptoms, and other factors was the idea behind Thermia, an online software tool designed by John Brownstein, PhD, and his colleagues in a digital health accelerator at Boston Children’s Hospital. Today, that tool is licensed by a company that makes digital thermometers, thanks to the hospital’s Technology and Innovation Development Office, which has helped Boston Children’s become a leader in bringing researchers’ ideas to market.

“The Technology and Innovation Development Office has a devoted team that works hand in hand with researchers to find the right path,” says Brownstein, who is also the hospital’s chief innovation officer. That might mean open-sourcing the technology, establishing a licensing agreement, or building a startup. “Once a technology is ready to be deployed, they understand how to build a commercial relationship, structure a deal, and get it done.”

The office has helped commercialize several technologies that have generated more than $300 million in royalties to support other innovations in patient care. In 2013, Nature Biotechnology named Boston Children’s one of the top 10 institutions for life sciences, based on licenses, licensing revenue, startups, and funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Among all U.S. academic medical centers, Boston Children’s is currently one of the top five recipients of NIH funding.

Irene Abrams, senior director of the Technology and Innovation Development Office, says bringing discoveries to market requires marrying the right ideas to the right commercial partners. “Commercialization of academic-stage technology is a long-term process, so every time we commercialize a discovery, it is the beginning of a long-term relationship,” she says.

Creating the Infrastructure

Helping to nurture those faculty-industry relationships are six licensing managers who serve as the primary business development team for the Technology and Innovation Development Office, which has 20 staff members total. These licensing managers work with researchers and innovators to develop an intellectual-property strategy and a commercialization strategy. If the project is successful, they also help negotiate deals and manage industry relationships.

Each licensing manager is dedicated to working with specific hospital departments and faculty members. The licensing managers collect ideas by attending department meetings and having informal conversations with faculty. They also engage in formal outreach by giving presentations and hosting events in the department. The office’s contracting, finance, and marketing and communications teams support the licensing managers’ efforts.

The office also provides a formal process for submitting ideas through its technology development fund. Once a year, the office will fund proof-of-concept projects with $50,000 or $150,000 grants; typically, it supports $750,000 to $1 million in projects each year. Many of the winning ideas have a lot of promise but lack polish. “We look for projects that have commercial potential but need more work before they are commercially ready,” Abrams says. “We try to find opportunities where we can be catalytic in de-risking the opportunities so we can attract investments.”

Success Stories

Over the years, Boston Children’s has helped develop well-known drugs such as Celgene’s Revlimid®, an oral chemotherapy drug that treats multiple myeloma, and Pfizer’s Neumega®, which can help prevent platelets from dropping too low in certain patients who receive chemotherapy.

One of the newest products developed is Shire’s Vonvendi®, the first treatment for von Willebrand disease, a rare hereditary bleeding disorder. Back in 1985, researchers at the hospital cloned the gene for von Willebrand disease.

  • Several startups from the hospital also have made headlines:
  • Scholar Rock, which develops biologic therapies
  • Emulate, which develops “organs on chips” disease models that can be used for drug development and other applications
  • Moderna Therapeutics, which develops protein therapeutics based on a novel messenger-RNA technology
  • Quartet Medicine, a biotech company that develops chronic pain treatments

Digital health is another focus area of the hospital’s innovation efforts. Brownstein leads the hospital’s Innovation and Digital Health Accelerator, which includes a cross-functional team of software developers, data analysts, clinicians, and entrepreneurs who develop mobile apps, software, and other tools to improve care. His team works closely with the Technology and Innovation Development Office to turn researchers’ projects into a reality.

In 2015, through the efforts of the Technology and Innovation Development Office, Brownstein’s Thermia tool was licensed to the Chinese device maker Raiing, which sells thermometers and software for continuous temperature monitoring. The company incorporated the technology into the app for their wearable iThermonitor device, which syncs with a smartphone via Bluetooth. (Boston Children’s has a financial stake in the company’s U.S. subsidiary.)

Although the tool was specifically designed not to offer diagnoses, it does give parents guidance based on Boston Children’s clinical guidelines for fever. It also provides advice on at-home treatment option based on the child’s age, weight, symptoms, preexisting conditions, and other factors. This helps parents avoid unnecessary visits to the emergency department for non-urgent fevers and, in turn, can help reduce unnecessary healthcare costs, Brownstein says.

The free tool also has a broader surveillance function designed to help track potential flu outbreaks in communities. “Recognizing that it’s difficult to engage people in providing symptoms about the flu, we decided to provide a helpful tool to consumers in exchange for having them share data about flu around the world,” Brownstein says (parents can opt out of most data elements).

Brownstein has developed several other apps and tools through the partnership between his digital health accelerator and the Technology and Innovation Development Office. One recent launch was Circulation, a platform that helps healthcare organizations use Uber for patient transportation.

Lessons Learned

Leaders at Boston Children’s offer the following advice for healthcare organizations seeking to bring devices and other innovations to market.

Build a supportive environment from the top down. A C-suite that understands the value of a broad portfolio of research and commercial innovations will help ensure adequate resources are dedicated to these efforts, Brownstein says.

Hire hybrids. “There is such a booming biotech business in Boston, which makes it difficult in terms of competition, but it also means there is a large pool of people who are interested and have the experience to do this work,” Abrams says.

When hiring, she looks for people who have a science background, and thus credibility with the faculty, but who also have business or tech-transfer experience. “It’s a special skill set,” she says.

Find implementers. Compared with a typical university, hospitals tend to have a smaller group of graduate and postdoctoral students who help support innovation. “The challenge for us is finding the people to start the companies and drive the opportunities,” Abrams says. “Sometimes, it is those boots on the ground that are missing in a hospital environment. So we think a lot about how to find entrepreneurs in residence and among early-stage CEOs.”

Look to the horizon. Abrams would like to see Boston Children’s become a hub for translational research. She is particularly interested in building the organization’s genomics capabilities to help clinicians drive advances in precision medicine.

Bridge culture gaps. When collaborating with a commercial partner on any innovation project, Abrams says, it is important to recognize some of the differences in culture. Academic medical centers are not-for-profit organizations that tend to have a bottom-up culture, in which faculty and clinicians have a lot of authority. For-profit corporations, on the other hand, tend to have a more hierarchical, top-down culture.

“You need to find a way to bridge those two cultures and come up with a strategy that is a win-win for both parties,” Abrams says. “If your incentives are aligned, then you have a partnership that has promise.”

Laura Ramos Hegwer is a freelance writer and editor based in Lake Bluff, Ill.

Interviewed for this article: Irene Abrams, senior director, Technology and Innovation Development Office, Boston Children’s Hospital; John Brownstein, chief innovation officer and head of the Innovation and Digital Health Accelerator, Boston Children’s Hospital.


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