As a doctoral student at Einstein, Sabriya Stukes, Ph.D. ’14, worked in the lab of Arturo Casadevall, M.D., Ph.D., then chair of the department of microbiology & immunology. Dr. Casadevall, now at Johns Hopkins, was doing basic research on a fungal pathogen called Cryptococcus neoformans, and “he really stressed the importance of creating a diverse laboratory environment and sharing your scientific work with as many people as possible,” Dr. Stukes recalls. “And that was true of Einstein generally. Going to grad school in the Bronx gave me a unique perspective on scientific collaborations and how science coming out of an academic institution could affect people’s lives.”
Dr. Stukes did not become a basic-science researcher. After Einstein she held a series of different jobs, including helping build a national platform to accelerate scientific collaborations, designing a new master’s degree program in translational medicine for the City College of New York, and directing operations for a small biotech company. Today she serves as chief scientific officer for IndieBio NY, a start-up development program that supports early-stage founders who want to turn their scientific ideas into successful biotech companies.
Still, the outlook that Dr. Casadevall and Einstein imparted remains central to her work.
“People bringing new scientific ideas to market tend not to realize that interesting laboratory data don’t always translate into a sustainable business idea,” she says. “So it’s really important that scientists and engineers ask the right questions when thinking about bringing their technologies to market. Are they truly meeting an unmet need? Can they make a compelling case for funding?”
Amid a global pandemic, climate change, and other challenges to human and planetary health, the skills required to bring new solutions to market have never been more important. But the United States, while remaining the world leader in basic research, is slipping when it comes to application.
Currently 90% of biotech start-ups fail, and an even higher percentage of new medicines in development never make it to market, with many falling victim to the “Valley of Death”—the developmental phase between lab work and clinical trials, where funding is scarce.
We’re trained to solve problems, create original bodies of work, and become experts in our disciplines.
— Dr. Sabriya Stukes
Dr. Stukes believes that the key to improving that track record is recruiting and developing the right people, and that Ph.D. programs like Einstein’s can be ideal training grounds.
“There’s a stereotype that people with Ph.D.s don’t make good entrepreneurs because we don’t know how to pivot and adjust in the real world,” she says. “I think the opposite is true. We’re trained to solve problems, create original bodies of work, and become experts in our disciplines, and we often lead our own research efforts. Plus, we know more about failure than most people because most of our experiments don’t work, or they give us unexpected results. It’s what we do with those results that makes all the difference.”
The latter attribute is key. Successful start-ups are often those that modify their original concepts in response to the feedback that Ph.D. programs with savvy tech-transfer offices can provide. And although most scientific experiments may fail, Einstein has developed a nationally recognized career and professional development program to help its graduates bring those experiments that are successful to fruition.
The office of biotechnology and business development, led by Janis Paradiso, M.B.A., and the career and professional development for graduate students and postdocs program, directed by Diane Safer, Ph.D., offer practical learning opportunities.
“Not only have things changed at Einstein; they’ve also changed in the biomedical workforce environment,” notes Victoria Freedman, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate programs in biomedical sciences. “The expectation now—and this is coming from the National Institutes of Health [NIH] and the National Science Foundation—is that Ph.D. programs will also be opportunities for career exploration and advancement.
“We encourage our Ph.Ds. to learn about the wide range of careers available to them and to take advantage of all the opportunities out there,” Dr. Freedman continues. “We bring a lot of people in to discuss all aspects of business development, intellectual property, and even venture capital. We also have a business and technology internship to give students experience in the business transfer process.”
That’s the role that Einstein has played for Adam Kramer, Ph.D. ’19, a senior scientist at MicroCures, a New York City biotech firm that is developing a new therapy that can recruit cells to damaged tissue in order to accelerate healing—or, conversely, help prevent cancer by stopping cell migration.
The only people in the world who understand the biology we’re working on and have the skills to translate it come from Dave’s academic lab.
— Dr. Adam Kramer
Dr. Kramer came to Einstein knowing that he wanted to work in biotech. His father ran Africa’s largest science museum, and his family had a history of cancer. Here on a Fulbright scholarship, he chose Einstein because several of its labs were doing work with an applied focus.
Through the Biotechnology Club at the College of Medicine, he attended a talk by David Sharp, Ph.D., professor of molecular pharmacology, of ophthalmology & visual sciences, and in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience, who was then in the process of founding MicroCures. Soon afterward he joined Dr. Sharp’s lab, where students were studying different applications for Dr. Sharp’s work, ranging from treatments for skin wounds to cancer and erectile dysfunction.
“The only people in the world who understand the biology we’re working on and have the skills to translate it come from Dave’s academic lab—so his lab is effectively the training station for the company,” Dr. Kramer says. “Einstein also has given us lab and office space on campus, as it has for several other companies, and I still work with Dave’s students. From my perspective, Einstein has a great culture in biotech.”
Although MicroCures does not yet have a marketed product, it seems clear that Dr. Sharp and his team are making the right moves. The new therapy has worked in animal models, and the company is now raising funds for its first human trials. “Dave understands that scientists are very good at the research in their fields, but he also knows that business acumen is just as important,” says Dr. Kramer, whose job focuses on obtaining small-business innovation grants from the NIH. “Collaboration has been huge for us.”
Chair and chief executive officer of MicroCures is Derek Proudian, a Silicon Valley investor. Dr. Sharp has brought in Einstein specialists for each of the indications the company is pursuing—Kelvin Davies, Ph.D., Einstein professor of urology and of molecular pharmacology, for erectile dysfunction; Joshua Nosanchuk, M.D., professor of medicine and of microbiology & immunology and the senior associate dean for medical education at Einstein, and an infectious-disease clinician at Montefiore, for wound healing; and Roy Chuck, M.D., Ph.D., professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences and of genetics and the Paul Henkind Chair in Ophthalmology at Einstein, and the chair of ophthalmology and visual sciences at Montefiore, for ophthalmology—as well as business-development people and an intellectual-property team. “Often, the founders try to do everything themselves,” Dr. Kramer notes, “and that’s one reason so many fail.”
Like most scientists, he would like to see increased funding for basic research, more public/private partnerships (particularly between pharmaceutical companies and academic labs), and a streamlining of regulatory hurdles, “not making them less stringent,” he says, “but perhaps taking a page from COVID-19 vaccine development, where everyone was able to move very quickly.”
Donors can step in and provide the funds to try these exciting ideas, which often lead to more grants or even new businesses.
— Dr. Victoria Freedman
Outside funding for research-intensive centers such as Einstein can make a big difference.
“If you have a new idea or something that’s unproven or very innovative, you won’t be able to get funding from established agencies,” notes Dr. Freedman. “And I think that’s where philanthropy could have a tremendous, catalytic role. Donors can step in and provide the funds to try these exciting ideas, which often lead to more grants or even new businesses.”
For Einstein graduate Dr. Stukes, again, it all comes back to investing in people.
“Medical and research institutions need to understand that just because you’re getting a Ph.D., it doesn’t necessarily mean you want to start your own lab,” Dr. Stukes says. “People get Ph.D.s for a variety of reasons and want different careers, and it’s important for institutions to support those careers, whether through the career-development office or through student-association offices. It can’t just be on the students to form specialized clubs and cobble the information together for themselves.”
Perhaps most of all, programs need to recognize that entrepreneurs like Dr. Stukes herself may wander a bit before they understand where they’re headed—and that their openness is part of what makes them good experimenters and pivoters.
“All of life is an experiment and, in a sense, there are no failures,” she says. “You always get data that are useful in making your next move, and ultimately it’s the sum of all of your experiences that helps you in whatever role you’re in.”