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Catalyst’s newest cohort spotlights Stanford innovation

Stanford Medicine's Catalyst program, which aims to accelerate impactful health care innovations, launches a new cohort.

Within the Stanford Medicine Catalyst program, Stanford innovators aim to solve an array of  problems in health and medicine: Some fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria, some harness artificial intelligence to help physicians more accurately detect disease and others use novel technology to improve outcomes of organ transplants and assuage the global organ shortage. But they all have something important in common: They're uniquely poised to help millions of people around the world.

Born of Stanford Medicine's Integrated Strategic Plan, Catalyst is an emerging health care launchpad that supports innovations from the entire Stanford ecosystem, including Stanford University and Stanford Medicine. The Catalyst program selects health care innovation projects with the most potential and weaves fibers of industry, academia and medicine to help innovators across the Stanford ecosystem to develop their best ideas into companies, organizations, or tools, translating beyond the lab to transform health care. Catalyst integrates support from science and industry experts into the translation of research, focusing on rapid development and acceleration to maximally impact health care providers and patients.

Catalyst's three leaders -- Euan Ashley, associate dean of the School of Medicine, Michael Halaas, associate dean and chief operating officer of the School of Medicine, and Kevin Wasserstein, executive director of Catalyst -- discuss the motivations behind the program, its unique nature, the future of Catalyst and more.

Can you talk about the impetus behind Catalyst? What niche does it fill?

Halaas: The overall goal of Catalyst is to magnify the impact of innovation from the Stanford community. Stanford has a rich history as the birthplace of many successful, commercial spinouts, both in the tech sector and in health and medicine. But the process isn't always straightforward. Many of our faculty report encountering "the valley of death," which happens when they have a great innovation, they can see the impact it could have if it were scaled, but there isn't proper support.

The Catalyst team helps project leads answer questions like: How do you connect with the investment community? How do you navigate regulatory or licensing issues? And how do you successfully spin out a company? Taking that on alone can be daunting, so the idea was to create an entity -- an internal accelerator -- that could help guide that process. That's something that hasn't existed in any one office at Stanford previously.

Wasserstein: Catalyst is uniquely positioned -- it sits in the heart of Silicon Valley, adjacent to a vibrant and rich startup community -- and Stanford has among the best innovation ecosystems in the world. When you put that together with the collective support from the leaders of Stanford Medicine's three entities, led by David Entwistle, president and CEO of Stanford Health Care; Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine; Paul King, president and CEO of Stanford Medicine Children's Health; it's a program that's bursting with potential and set up for longevity.

We want to fan these bright flames of innovation and accelerate them. We're a funding vehicle, an accelerator, an incubator and a translational vehicle. We work side by side with project teams to catalyze their progress beyond the bench, at industry speed, to help bring their ideas to the bedside more rapidly. To support these life-altering innovations and help get them to patients and health caregivers-- what's better than that?

Ashley: Our mission is to find the right projects, nurture them and give them the best chance at succeeding. We're looking for people who want to change the world with their idea. Faculty members sometimes have 25 ideas, but we want the one idea that they think can transform health care for millions.

We know these ideas are out there -- we've heard loud and clear from faculty that there's a need for support that takes prototypes to the next level. I think of Catalyst as how we bridge that gap -- we offer funding, operational support, and ready access to people who have a track record of translating ideas to the real world.

How has Catalyst grown since its inception?

Halaas: We presented the vision for Catalyst and planned to get started right as COVID-19 hit. We had to back off a bit from a full launch, but we did a small-scale version that acted as a sort of beta test, which we called the COVID-19 pop-up. It was a way for us to do a pilot of how the program would work, and we saw some nice successes out of that. One was a rapid, inexpensive saliva-based COVID-19 test, which successfully went through the program; the Gates Foundation decided to take it on, fund it further and really bolster it to deliver the tests to under-resourced countries.

Ashley: The success of the saliva COVID test put a fine point on the fact that Catalyst innovations are not meant to just benefit people in developed countries. We want to bring these inventions to bear on the whole world. We want diversity in the impact we have, diversity of perspectives we solicit, diversity in the people we support. Over the years I've learned that DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] is something you have to keep working on and constantly be thinking about to get it right. The Catalyst team has made diversity a central part of our selection process, and that's reflected in our numbers, both in applicants and successful programs. For instance, half of the projects in the initial COVID pilot were run by women.

What makes Catalyst unique as an innovations program?

Ashley: Within the Stanford environment, we already have great seed grant programs to help ideas get off the ground and support preliminary testing. Let's say you get together with a collaborator and build a prototype of your idea -- what happens next? Maybe you need half a million dollars to take it to the next phase; maybe you need program management; maybe you need regulatory advice on how you're going to get this approved by the FDA. You could try to get more research grants, which can be very time consuming and is never guaranteed, or you might try to spin out and commercialize. That can be tricky at such an early stage of invention.

At Catalyst, we evaluate projects through a process that combines tactics from industry and academia. As part of our "diligence process," and we ask internal subject matter experts, as well as external experts who are leaders in Silicon Valley, to help us dial in on the potential of a project. We're interested in projects from all across campus -- engineers, a food service worker at the hospital, a communication specialist. We welcome that. There are creative people throughout campus and if they have an idea that can solve a problem in the health and medicine space, we'd love to hear about it.

Wasserstein:  We help to round out the team's capabilities, by adding expertise, team members, mentors and advisors. Few funding programs write "big" checks for this project stage; but Catalyst can -- with the potential for up to $1M for any given project. We partner to establish milestones and criteria for success with the project leads, and we make a plan with them for the end stage. We help with strategic direction and business planning, and operational support to catalyze an idea beyond a fledgling stage. And, even further, Catalyst can help many of these projects leverage the Stanford Medicine ecosystem by piloting technologies in health care settings, running clinical trials, and more. These elements can accelerate and scale the project's translation to patients and health caregivers.

What does success look like for Catalyst programs? How do you see it evolving?

Halaas: Success for Catalyst is measured by impact on human health, not necessarily by financial return. It's always great if successful projects have financial success for the inventors and the institution, but if the inventions end up growing in the nonprofit world, and they have broad impact without huge financial return -- great. That's a success. If we can take innovations and deploy them in our own health system here at Stanford Medicine and they benefit our patients -- even if they don't make it to market -- that's also a win for Catalyst.

Wasserstein: Success is delivering solutions to significantly impact health care. Ultimately, it's really about saving and improving as many lives as possible. We can only deliver this level of support to so many projects at a given time, but, of course, we want to support as many teams as possible.  If a great project isn't selected to be part of a Catalyst cohort, we still aspire to help these teams find resources and to give them coaching, mentorship and encouragement so that they can progress their work -- and we encourage them to return for future rounds of Catalyst project applications.

Catalyst is still young, and as the program continues to develop, we want to refine and build a strong and lasting legacy of innovation.

Catalyst's cohort of nine projects, selected from 160 applicants, are:

  • Transforming Aggressive Cancer Therapy: Developing an innovative, first-in-class treatment for lung cancer; led by Jennifer Cochran, PhD, professor of bioengineering, and Peter Jackson, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology and of pathology
  • Hydrophage: Developing a hydrogel-phage delivery system for antibiotic-resistant infections; led by Paul Bollyky, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine and of microbiology and immunology, and Ovijit Chaudhury, PhD, associate professor of mechanical engineering
  • HrtEx: Developing a remote patient blood pressure monitoring system that provides clinicians with one-click recommendations for medication management; led by Paul Wang, MD, professor of medicine
  • Karyos: Leveraging the scalability of machine learning to guide cell state transformations to program therapeutic cells; led by William Greenleaf, PhD, professor of genetics, Sandy Klemm, PhD, postdoctoral scholar, and Jacob Blum, PhD, postdoctoral scholar
  • Kidney Pod: Developing a novel organ cooling device to increase transplant longevity, address the organ shortage and enable robotic transplantation; led by Marc Melcher, MD, PhD, professor of surgery
  • Nuclei.IO: Developing an AI-based digital pathology software system to assist pathologists with more accurate workflows and diagnoses; led by Thomas Montine, MD, professor of pathology; James Zou, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical data science, and Zhi Huang, PhD, postdoctoral scholar
  • Quantitative Digitography: Developing a remote patient monitoring system for Parkinson's Disease to enable accurate symptom assessment and improve therapeutic care; led by Helen Bronte-Stewart, MD, professor of neurology and neurological sciences
  • Quantified MD: Quantifying surgical performance to improve surgeon training and patient outcomes; led by Carla Pugh, MD, PhD, professor of surgery
  • Stanford Pharmacogenomics Implementation and Reporting Architecture: Developing a point-of-care clinical pharmacogenomics solution for patients and providers; led by Teri Klein, PhD, professor of biomedical data science and of medicine and Stuart Scott, PhD, professor of pathology

Catalyst expects to open its next application cycle this summer.   

Photo courtesy of Catalyst

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