In January employees at Partners HealthCare and members of the public were invited to listen to the stories of four leading researchers, and how they turned their discoveries into commercial successes. Hosted by Partners HealthCare Innovation, the forum was the fourth in an educational series intended to explore issues in academic innovation. 

“Few things are as informative and motivating as a peer’s experiences. We are truly fortunate to have such exceptionally innovative staff who are willing to share, in practical terms, their personal innovation journey,” said Chris Coburn, Vice President, Innovation.

Interested Partners researchers and employees, as well as members of the community heard advice and ideas about how they too could partner with industry to turn their discoveries into viable products. Themes gravitated toward persistence, mentorship, and optimism.

Anne Klibanski, MD, Chief Academic Officer at Partners kicked off the session by welcoming everyone and also by reiterating that the work being done through Partners Innovation is a high priority for the organization.

“I personally think that hearing the stories of people, how they have gone through the system, what their own pathways have been, is one of the most meaningful ways to appreciate how this process works, and I think it really epitomizes what we’re trying to do in a cultural way throughout the institutions,” she said.

Audience members gained insights and advice from the following investigators from Partners hospitals:Innovators Forum panelists during discussion

  • Mehmet Toner, PhD, professor of surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Harvard Medical School. Toner has developed many technologies in the areas of microfluidics, tissue engineering, and the use of freezing to study biological functions, and he has turned some of these areas of discovery into successful start-up opportunities, including Daktari Diagnostics.
  • Paul Ridker, MD, cardiologist and director of the Center for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH).  Ridker is best known for the discovering that C-reactive protein (CRP) testing is a good way to measure cardiovascular risk, and he has also been engaged in large-scale trials that determined that statin therapy was successful in reducing risk of heart attack and stroke in individuals with high levels of CRP. He is the co-inventor on a series of patents that relate to the use of inflammatory biomarkers in cardiovascular disease.
  • Christine Seidman, MD, co-chair of the Brigham and Women’s Research Institute and a doctor of cardiovascular medicine at BWH. Seidman’s main area of research is in understanding the genetic basis for Familial Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, which can cause sudden cardiac death. She and her team discovered a gene on a specific chromosome that indicates whether someone has hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and what their risk level is. She has had success in working at the Partners HealthCare Center for Personalized Genetic Medicine to develop tests to find these mutations in any patient, regardless of their family history, and is currently involved in a new company, Myokardia, which aims to treat patients with genetic cardiomyopathies and related heart disease.
  • Rox Anderson, MD, dermatologist at MGH and professor at Harvard Medical School and MIT. Through his research into photo medicine, Anderson is responsible for thinking of and creating many of the non-scarring laser treatments currently in use today for medical care. He has created many successful start-up companies in the area of using lasers to remove hair, improve skin conditions.

Although each researcher had a different background and varying reasons for becoming interested in the field of medical research, they echoed many of the same themes when it came to their own stories of success with start-up companies and partnership with industry:

  • Let the problem be your guide, because technology and science should be in the service of solving the problem, said Anderson.
  • Think critically about research that involves unknown clinical and technology needs. Echoing Anderson, Toner explained that when you’re developing technology against unknown biology and unknown clinical need, it’s very challenging. “That’s a very difficult sweet spot where we need to create an academic environment that’s more conditioned to working with industry where we can take these risky projects forward,” he said.
  • Empower young clinicians to do research—we as a community don’t have to split people into either being a clinician or a researcher. Clinicians know the problems that need addressing, said Anderson.
  • Be thick-skinned. People will question you, your research, your processes, etc. “If you don’t do the experiment, you don’t know the answer,” said Ridker
  • Find really smart people to work with. All of the researchers referenced many other mentors, scientists, and physicians with whom they have worked on various studies, and to whom they owe some of their successes.
  • It’s important to learn from your failures. Each researcher referenced failures- failed research experiments, failed companies.

Innovators Forum view of audienceAfter each researcher shared his or her personal story, the four took part in a short panel discussion. When the panelists were asked to come up with one word or phrase that describes how they are distinctive from their peers, they said the following:

  • “willing to gamble”
  • “open to unexpected collaborations”
  • “reader of other stuff (outside of your area of study)”
  • “incurable optimism”

The next meetings of the Partners Innovators Forum will take place on  March 6 on the topic of “Accelerating Innovation in the Electronic Era of Health Care.” Visit to find out more.