‘Innovating for Cures’ Speakers Take Deep Dive into How to Support Discoveries’ Transition from Lab to Patients

Panel discussion at Innovating for Cures event on February 28, 2024, at Wertheim UF Scripps
A panel discussion at the Innovating for Cures event on Feb. 28, 2024, at The Wertheim UF Scripps Institute.

JUPITER, Fla. –Tackling the toughest challenges in medicine means taking risks. It means asking “Why not?” when others say something cannot be done. It means inventing new technologies, forming new collaborations, and exploring the unknown.

At “Innovating for Cures,” an event held at The Herbert Wertheim UF Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation & Technology on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, innovators, philanthropists and venture capital investors shared those messages and more as speakers discussed what’s required to accelerate biomedical research advances out of the lab and into the clinic.

The event was jointly sponsored by The Wertheim UF Scripps Institute; UF Innovate, the University of Florida’s technology licensing arm, and DeepWork Capital, a venture capital group that manages the Florida Opportunity Fund.  

It takes many sources of support to move a game-changing discovery from the laboratory to patients, said Benjamin Patz, managing partner of DeepWork Capital. With time, those investments can pay off hugely for society, for patients, and for the individuals who invest their time and resources into the effort, he said.

Patz shared the story of Sovaldi, a drug whose approval in 2013 marked a life-changing turning point for people sick with hepatitis C. The treatment had its origins in academic research funded by federal grants and donations. It took licensing by a venture-funded biotech company, Pharmasset, and further refinements by other academic groups, to transform the lead molecule into a potential medication. Acquisition of Pharmasset by Gilead Sciences in 2011 for $11 billion provided the surge of capital needed for clinical trials and eventual FDA approval of Sovaldi, also providing strong returns for venture investors.

Today, 98% of people infected with hepatitis C can expect a cure from antiviral treatments inspired by and including Sovaldi. Before that success, the cure rate for hepatitis C had been just 20%.

Patz pointed out that of all venture funding invested in the United States over the past five years, 73% has gone to just three states, California, New York and Massachusetts.

“These three states combined produced less than 25% of US gross domestic product in 2023,” Patz said.

He shared a slide that showed that 38,000 tech companies and more than 120 billion-dollar companies are based in Florida. Florida ranks fourth in the United States for total technology jobs, with over 440,000. Florida was also number one in the nation in both 2021 and 2022 for new technology businesses established. Today, Florida universities invest more than $1.4 billion annually in life-science R&D, he noted.

“We believe there’s an opportunity to invest here in Florida,” Patz said.

University-based research is an unparalleled economic engine, said Jackson Streeter, M.D., a partner at DeepWork Capital and director at UF Innovate.  

“Universities are the core of innovation and what separates the United States from the rest of the world. It’s the fuel that drives the engine,”  Streeter said. “Innovation is part of our DNA at the University of Florida.”

Molecular biologist Patrick Griffin, scientific director of the institute, shared details about the institute’s unique set up, emphasizing a blend of chemistry and biology.

“You have fundamental findings of basic biology and the tools to approach them as a therapeutic opportunity here,” he said.

Tracy Kerwin, Wertheim UF Scripps’ executive director of advancement, noted that philanthropic donations serve as the critical spark that ignites these ideas that catch fire.

“Sustaining this kind of innovation calls for more than just passion,” Kerwin said. “It requires focused resources to support expert faculty, cutting-edge labs, student discovery and groundbreaking research.”

The evening ended with a panel discussion featuring four entrepreneurial faculty members from The Wertheim UF Scripps Institute: Susana Valente, Ph.D., who chairs the institute’s immunology and microbiology departments; neuroscience professor Gavin Rumbaugh, Ph.D.; Courtney Miller, Ph.D., a professor of molecular medicine and neuroscience and director of academic affairs, and Matthew Disney, Ph.D., endowed institute professor and chair of the institute’s chemistry department.

“One of the things I tell my students is to welcome criticism and embrace failure,” said Disney, who has launched multiple companies working on treatments for ALS, myotonic dystrophy, cancer and more. “Failure is just data. It’s  more useful data that helps teach you where you need to go.”