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Life Sciences Institute bridges Valley of Death with new fund
Watch LSI Director Alan Saltiel discusses the new Innovation Partnership >
A list of candidate projects for Innovation Partnership funding >

The Life Sciences Institute (LSI) is launching a program to shepherd promising biomedical discoveries from the lab bench to the marketplace.

Innovation Partnership uses philanthropic gifts to bridge the critical funding gap — known to biomedical researchers and venture capitalists as the Valley of Death — between laboratory discovery and commercialization.

More than $1.6 million has been raised to date for Innovation Partnership. The goal is to raise $10 million over the next five years to support LSI discoveries related to neurodegenerative diseases, diabetes and cancer.

"The University of Michigan established the Life Sciences Institute to promote collaborative research focused on the most pressing problems in human health," says President Mary Sue Coleman. "Now the institute is taking a leadership role not only in scientific discovery but in building a pipeline from the lab to life-saving medical therapies."

The U.S. National Institutes of Health funds much of the basic biomedical research at LSI and at universities across the country. And once researchers can reliably show that a discovery has immediate applications, commercial investors step in.

"There is a huge need to fund research activities after NIH funding typically stops and before venture capitalists typically begin," says Paul Meister, chief executive officer and co-founder of Liberty Lane Partners, a private investment firm. Meister co-chairs LSI's external advisory board and is former vice chairman of Fisher Scientific International. "Philanthropy is the only way to fill this gap."

A committee comprised of venture capitalists and business executives with experience in managing scientific enterprises will evaluate Innovation Partnership proposals. Priority will be given to proposals that address a critical medical need and that appear to have high commercialization potential.

The first Innovation Partnership research awards — in the range of $200,000-$500,000 apiece —are expected by year's end. LSI will provide lab space, equipment and scientific support equivalent to a 50-percent-or-more match on donor-provided funds.

"The partnership represents the launch of what I see as the next chapter of the LSI," says Director Alan Saltiel.

Donors to the fund include all members of LSI's Leadership Council, a group of scientific and business leaders.

"Although there are plenty of breakthroughs coming out of university biology programs across the country, there isn't enough money to fund all the good ones," says Dr. Jim Niedel, a Leadership Council member and managing director of New Leaf Venture Partners, a healthcare venture investing firm.

"The Innovation Partnership is a way of bridging that gap," says Niedel, former chief science and technology officer at GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical.

LSI's 29 faculty members include chemists, biologists, geneticists, physiologists, computational biologists and leaders in other, related disciplines. The ability to draw on this diverse pool of expertise — as well as the intellectual resources available at U-M's top-rated business, engineering, medicine, law and public health schools — will provide an immeasurable level of support for Innovation Partnership-funded researchers.

The exit goal for Innovation Partnership projects is a technology that can either be licensed to an existing entity, result in the formation of a start-up company, or continue down the path toward commercialization with support from other university, governmental or private-sector resources.

"This program is a great example of how philanthropy can fill the critical gaps in our research pipeline," says Dr. Tadataka Yamada, president of the global health program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, former chairman of research and discovery at GlaxoSmithKline and a member of LSI's external advisory board.

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