Translating groundbreaking scientific discoveries into practical technologies

Amidst the numerous challenges posed by COVID-19, the Penn Center for Innovation has continued to facilitate impactful innovations created at Penn, fostering partnerships and helping to realize new products and businesses.

a cartoon of four researchers one with a notebook, one looking through a microscope, one injecting liquid into a test tube, and one looking at two flasks

Even as COVID-19 cases increase across the U.S., recent promising news about two of the top vaccine candidates has spurred new hope that seemed out of reach at the start of the pandemic. This good news is thanks in part to key work by Penn scientists, a prime example of how fundamental University research can be translated into impactful products.

Helping to foster the development of these types of groundbreaking scientific discoveries into useful products and services is the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI). This year, amidst the numerous challenges posed by the pandemic, PCI has continued its mission of fostering innovations that lead to impactful technologies, including ongoing efforts to combat COVID-19.

Fostering innovation

One key goal of PCI is to help translate discoveries and ideas generated at the University into new products and businesses. PCI achieves this in many ways: by forging connections with the private sector for technology licenses, facilitating sponsored research programs and alliance partnerships, and supporting the formation of new startup businesses.

a poster showing FY2020 PCI by the numbers, with gears and clip art showing key statistics from the past fiscal year
Even with the extensive disruptions caused by the pandemic, PCI has made many accomplishments this past fiscal year.

Even with the extensive disruptions caused by the pandemic, PCI has made many accomplishments this past fiscal year, which are detailed in the online “Year in Review” and includes the execution of 643 commercialization agreements, 705 patent applications filed, and $116 million in PCI-facilitated industry-sponsored research funding. PCI also continues to host many workshops and educational events, including its upcoming first-ever entirely virtual “Celebration of Innovation.”

All of these accomplishments were made despite this spring’s abrupt shift in operations, says PCI Managing Director John Swartley. “I’m amazed at how resilient our staff has been during these exceptional circumstances, dealing with all kinds of challenges and still performing at a very high level and getting the job done. If you look at our end of the year statistics, and if you didn’t know there was all of this chaos, I’m not sure you would see it in the numbers,” says Swartley.

James Bowen, PCI’s executive director of corporate alliances, echoes the sentiment. “I commend the entire PCI team and the organization's ability to pivot overnight into a completely virtual work environment and to immediately engage with faculty around COVID-19 and pandemic-related responses,” he says. “PCI staff have done an exceptional job at working with Penn faculty, staff, and our commercial partners to help navigate through these challenging times and to help position Penn and our investigators in a way that hopefully enables Penn’s COVID-19 related innovations to make an impact in combating the pandemic.”

Pandemic-related research at Penn

While on-campus research was limited this spring, efforts to monitor, prevent, diagnose, or treat COVID-19 simultaneously ramped up, and PCI also adapted to provide extra support to research related to the novel coronavirus. One example of a PCI-supported effort is work by the Perelman School of Medicine’s Ping Wang, who is developing highly-sensitive and scalable point-of-care tests for SARS-CoV-2 that don’t rely on complicated machines or difficult-to-source reagents.

“That’s kind of the Benjamin Franklin in all of us here at Penn,” says Swartley about Wang’s research. “The ingenuity of looking for a solution that’s also practical. I think Penn is really good at the practical. It’s not just clever and scientifically sound, but we can also do something beneficial for society with the inventions created here.”

In addition to the ongoing COVID-19 research efforts, previous work by Penn Medicine’s Drew Weissman, in collaboration with former faculty member Katalin Kariko, laid a key piece of the foundation for two COVID-19 vaccine candidates being developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. Both of these vaccines use messenger RNA (mRNA), an approach that has long held promise for use in therapeutics but previously could not be effectively used as a biological drug since the unmodified mRNA is too unstable and immunogenic.

By changing the chemistry of one of the nucleosides, a “letter” of the mRNA’s code, Weissman’s and Kariko’s fundamental discovery addressing key issues is now allowing companies to finally explore new applications using this modified mRNA platform. “What really opened the door to this now rapidly evolving area of translational science was the discovery at Penn by Kariko and Weissman that specific modifications made to the mRNA molecule impart properties that give this new class of modified mRNA medicines much greater prophylactic and therapeutic potential,” says Bowen.

The severity of the COVID-19 crisis has “compressed at least 10 years of development into less than a year” for mRNA vaccines, says Swartley, something that will likely have a long-term impact on medicine. “This is not just a one-time event. It’s a major scientific story that will continue to develop. This is really just the tip of the iceberg,” Swartley says.

A continued focus on fostering connections

Since it was established in 2014, PCI has fostered strong partnerships between Penn and the private sector to help translate discoveries into beneficial technologies, a trend that is certain to continue, says Swartley. “That spirit pervades Penn,” he says. “We're not just doing research for research sake; we’re trying to derive practical benefits that permeate out from the entire institution.”

This includes multiyear R&D alliance partnerships, which Bowen oversees in his role at PCI, where the University is more directly involved in ongoing preclinical and translational technology development with its external partners. “Penn recognized that to be a leader in nascent and rapidly developing technology areas where much of the innovation, expertise, and know-how lives within our research and clinical labs, the entire Penn team of researchers, clinicians, and staff needs to work assiduously and collaboratively with our partners for the program to be most successful,” says Bowen. “It’s really reflective of a change in approach, and Penn has embraced the idea that the University team often needs to work closely with our partners over many years for effective translation of cutting-edge technology.”

For Swartley, he is proud of both the “fortitude, perseverance, and resilience” he’s seen at PCI, as well as how Penn has contributed to combat the ongoing crisis. “We’re moving discoveries forward at such a rapid pace, and we’re able to translate technology so quickly, which does bring hope and new opportunities to treat diseases that didn’t really have options before,” he says. “It’s incredible validation of why most of us got into this field in the first place.”

James Bowen is the executive director of corporate alliances at the Penn Center for Innovation.

John S. Swartley is the associate vice provost for research and managing director of the Penn Center for Innovation.

The annual Celebration of Innovation event, hosted by PCI, brings together the Penn innovation community to celebrate the achievements of faculty and researchers. This year’s fifth annual event, which will be held virtually on Wednesday December 2nd, will honor the more than 80 patent recipients this fiscal year. PCI will also give special awards for the Inventor of the Year, Deal of the Year, Newcomer of the Year, Startup of the Year, and Partner of the Year.