Accelerating the Application of Biomedical Discoveries

Blavatnik Family Foundation’s $50-million gift aims to support development of early-stage Harvard research into human cures

Len Blavatnik, M.B.A. '89
Isaac T. Kohlberg, director of the Office of Technology Development

The Blavatnik Family Foundation, led by Len Blavatnik, M.B.A. ’89, has given $50 million to expedite the translation of basic-science discoveries made at Harvard into practical therapies. The gift—a scaling-up of an earlier, $5-million gift that provided half the support for the University’s Biomedical Accelerator Fund—will also underwrite a program of life-sciences-entrepreneurship fellowships at Harvard Business School (HBS).

The Biomedical Accelerator

According to Isaac T. Kohlberg, senior associate provost and director of Harvard’s Office of Technology Development (OTD), many academic scientific discoveries suffer from a “development gap”: they are at too early a stage to be considered viable as the basis for a new business venture or a collaboration with an existing commercial enterprise. In the case of life-sciences inventions that might have a therapeutic benefit if fully developed (a particular strength of the University, given the number of life-sciences researchers and the volume of sponsored research at Harvard Medical School [HMS] and in other faculties), the funding necessary to explore whether discoveries are worthy of further investment has simply been lacking.

The OTD is responsible for commercializing technologies developed at the University, and overseeing collaborations with industry partner/investors. Its biomedical accelerator fund, created in 2007 and initially funded with $10 million in gifts, goes beyond the passive process of patenting and licensing promising ideas. As Kohlberg describes it, the fund actively seeks early-stage discoveries, underwrites further work as necessary, and provides expert mentors along the path to licensing innovations for commercial development—either through an agreement with a biotechnology or pharmaceutical company, or through an entrepreneurial start-up.

The accelerator issues a request for proposals to all Harvard life-sciences faculty members annually, Kohlberg said. (Because the focus is on the University, the program does not include the thousands of medical researchers at Harvard-affiliated hospitals.)  OTD staff members—including Curtis Keith, Ph.D. ’00, chief scientific officer of the accelerator fund (and formerly co-founder and senior vice president, research, at CombinatoRx Inc.)—review the resulting submissions; invite fuller proposals from perhaps half the respondents; and then bring those ideas before an eight-member external review committee. The review committee is, in a way, a microcosm of the technology-development and -transfer process; members include four senior professors:

The committee’s other members include representatives of three venture-capital firms (Alexis Borisy, A.M. ’95, partner at Third Rock Ventures, and founder of CombinatoRx; Charlie Cohen of Synthesis Capital; and Christopher Mirabelli of HealthCare Ventures), plus a senior pharmaceutical executive (Peter Mueller, executive vice president, global research and development, and chief scientific officer at Vertex).

According to Kohlberg, the review committee determines which proposals to fund, typically awarding $250,000 to $300,000 per project (with renewals possible in subsequent years, subject to committee review). To date, he said, 37 projects have been funded (see a partial list here), and more than half have resulted in commercial partnerships.

Among those, Keith highlights SciFluor Life Sciences, which attracted a $5-million commercial investment in 2011; it has licensed a process created by Tobias Ritter, associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology, to attach fluorine to drug molecules, enhancing their stability, potency, and ability to reach targets (for example, penetrating the blood-brain barrier). Another is Proteostasis Therapeutics, which is developing drugs for neurodegenerative diseases; it has licensed Accelerator-supported research pursued and refined by HMS’s professor of cell biology Daniel Finley, McKenzie associate professor of cell biology Randall W. King, and professor of cell biology Alfred L. Goldberg; the three professors have been named scientific co-founders of the enterprise. Although both enterprises are early-stage, discovery companies, one a start-up and one more established, they operate from Cambridge, suggesting the local economic-development potential of this kind of mentoring and nurturing process when applied to discoveries at the laboratory bench.

With the new $50-million infusion, the renamed Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator can fund more discoveries from their earliest stages, Kohlberg said, and can make larger commitments where warranted. Although the funds are meant to be spent, he noted, the gift has a self-renewing feature, too: 20 percent of the revenues accruing to the University from accelerator-funded projects will be returned to the accelerator to sustain its future operations.

Training Life-Sciences Entrepreneurs

A second element of the gift aims to create a cohort of Harvard-trained entrepreneurs who will work in life sciences. The Blavatnik funds will support three to five one-year, postgraduate fellowships at HBS annually. The fellows, working with mentors assembled by Professor Sato, will focus on Harvard-germinated technologies—principally, projects supported by the accelerator—seeking to create new ventures to develop them commercially.

As the membership of the accelerator’s external-review committee suggests, Boston is a national center for venture capital focused on life-sciences investing—not least because, as The Boston Globe recently reported, the city has ranked first nationwide in National Institutes of Health research funding for 18 consecutive years. Boston and Cambridge have also become the venue for leading pharmaceutical companies’ research and development operations, ranging from home-grown enterprises like Biogen-Idec, Genzyme, and Vertex to outposts of multinational firms including Merck, Pfizer, and Novartis—fueling a local real-estate boom.

The Donor

Len Blavatnik is founder and chair of Access Industries, a privately held industrial group with major investments in natural resources, chemicals, media, telecommunications, and real estate. Its roots trace to the privatization of Russia’s industries in sectors such as petroleum and aluminum; more recently, it acquired Warner Music Group. As of March 2013, Forbes listed his net worth as $16 billion—forty-forth on its world’s billionaires ranking.

He has reportedly made philanthropic contributions to a range of artistic and cultural institutions. Prior gifts in support of science have included a New York Academy of Sciences awards program for young scientists in the tristate area; the $10-million Harvard gift of 2009, half in support of the accelerator program and half to support cancer-vaccine research at the Broad Institute; and a $10-million gift announced earlier this month to underwrite immunobiology research at Yale School of Medicine. In 2010, he committed an initial £75 million to launch the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. According to his corporate biography, he is a member of Harvard’s Committee on University Resources—its leading donors, who also advise on fundraising strategy.

The Context

In the University announcement of the $50-million gift, Blavatnik was quoted as saying:

By partnering with Harvard’s world-class biomedical research division, I am delighted to help accelerate the development of new therapies. Moreover, by increasing the collaborative efforts between Harvard Business School and Harvard’s scientific community, we will empower the next generation of life-science entrepreneurs and provide a further catalyst for innovation and research development.

President Drew Faust said:

Len Blavatnik’s passionate support of entrepreneurship and science as forces for progress reflects the forward-thinking leadership that will allow Harvard and others to develop promising new technologies that benefit society as a whole. The Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator and the integrated cross-university partnership it enables will advance the next great breakthroughs in biomedical technology, with its roots at Harvard.

Added HBS dean Nitin Nohria:

By bringing together expertise and experience from across Harvard, the Accelerator and the HBS Fellows program will further enhance Harvard’s commitment to innovative research and entrepreneurship. With student interestat an all-time high and with the resources of the University’s Innovation Lab and HBS’s Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship at the ready, we are well positioned to make the most of this generous gift from the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

Nohria’s comment suggests some of the trends under way at the University that may have encouraged Blavatnik’s gift, and which will, in turn, be strengthened by his support, including:

The threads may not have been woven into a whole, yet, but they have been assembled at an accelerating rate. The ideas have been championed from the Corporation—where William F. Lee has expertise in intellectual-property litigation and has served on the SEAS visiting committee and the board of the Broad Institute (a genomics-research center)—and the decanal level through the ranks of diverse faculties. That they may prove attractive for substantial gifts must encourage University officials as they near the autumn launch of a very substantial Harvard capital campaign.



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