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PITCH perfect

Graphic by Jason Hu

Anyone who’s made the trek up Science Hill has seen clusters of students leaving lectures, worked into a hushed frenzy as they scheme to get involved in a professor’s research project. Before we even set foot on campus, we complete a survey in which we categorize and prioritize our main interests; for students in STEM, “research” is consistently a top priority. Though Yale is known as a humanities powerhouse and respected liberal arts school, admissions tours make sure everyone recognizes that it is also a top notch research institution. With this assurance, the allure of research has come to surround the liberal arts heart of Yale.

Now, a joint initiative is providing a perfect window into the reaches of research, and giving new life and opportunity to the desire to discover in the biological sciences. Yale and the University of Connecticut have teamed up for the Program in Innovative Therapeutics for Connecticut’s Health (PITCH). PITCH is a biotechnology start-up incubator working to bring the fruits of research in university labs into the marketable world. “[We] wanted to cross disciplinary fields and help create an avenue to convert ideas to translational products” says Dennis Wright, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Connecticut and one of the faculty leaders of PITCH. “There’s always been a growing interest in an institutional pipeline […] This is a unique mechanism for these two big universities.” PITCH, which hopes to develop big ideas from on-campus labs, is funded by a $10 million grant from Connecticut’s Bioscience Innovation Fund.

The initiative is focused on giving academia’s hard-earned knowledge a commercial outlet to the private sector, attracting big companies (that usually possess the resources to turn an interesting research result into a marketable product) and willing financiers for startups. It may seem strange that a research-driven, entrepreneurial program like PITCH wants to find its home here at Yale, a university renowned for the strength of its liberal arts curriculum. PITCH’s founders, however, see the university’s broad strengths as more of a benefit than a mismatch of ideals. Craig Crews, the Lewis B. Cullman Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, and a professor of chemistry and pharmacology at Yale, said that “the power of PITCH is that it captures the breadth of scientific inquiry because there are so many people working on so many things here. It provides a deep pipeline for advancement.” The basic tenets of the liberal arts encourage exploration and the evolution of a diverse set of skills; PITCH seems poised to gracefully take advantage of this diversity, fostering inquiry and encompassing the ideal of collaboration. “One of the strengths of PITCH is that it captures the breadth of scientific inquiry, because there are so many people working on so many things. It provides a deep pipeline,” said Crews.

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“It’s a great field for Yale students to get involved with because of the wide variety of academic majors that have the skills necessary to succeed in biotech” said Stephanie Smelyansky, TD ’19, Vice President of the Yale Scientific Magazine. From her perspective, “obviously, the biosciences and chemistry are important in biotech, but so are engineering, such as electrical or chemical engineering, physics, and even economics.” In other instances, similar biological startup accelerator programs have remained within big “research universities” like Boston University or the University of Alabama at Birmingham. One of PITCH’s hubs centers around a liberal arts background. Smelyansky hopes this distinction will make the program successful, ensuring that its future remains tied to New Haven and Yale.

Connecticut is a heavyweight in the biological and pharmacological world. Many major scientific advancements have occurred here and large pharmaceutical groups have made this state their home. On Mar. 1, Alexion—a large company that is involved in autoimmune disease research—celebrated the relocation of its global headquarters back to its roots in New Haven. But PITCH is just the latest initiative in Yale’s recent push to make it easier to capitalize on its research.

In the years before PITCH came onto the scene, Crews started the Yale Center for Molecular Discovery to help researchers bridge the gap between their lab and the marketplace. “There are a number of these [research] projects that have real partial potential and I wanted to see if I could help them,” he says about this new endeavor. “There were no resources to take them to the next step, refine them into drug candidates. I realized there’s a lot of great science that may not be as competitive because they may not have the entrepreneurial experience.” Utilizing the history and continuing growth of biotechnology in Connecticut and New Haven brings opportunities to Yale, UConn, and the students of both institutions. The region has been an established leader in biotechnology and PITCH allows for more and more people to capitalize upon the rich past and promising future.

This growth has coincided with a surge in student interest in biotechnology. Smelyansky said that she “especially [sees] biotech being huge here in the coming years because of how many people are involved in the biosciences on campus. The most common course of study in the School of Arts and Sciences is in the biosciences, and the number of undergraduate STEM majors is rising rapidly.” This set the stage for the beginnings of PITCH, providing, as Crews said, “additional resources to push them farther along. [This] isn’t necessarily drug development, more the minimal data package necessary to attract external private investment. We want to launch companies.” This new focus will add an important element to research conducted on campus. So many Yalies want to engage with research, but at the moment it can be difficult to see how that engagement can have some real impact beyond the confines of the lab, into the world. “A lot of times you’re not really sure of what you’re going to get,” said Nicole Eskow, a freshman involved with leukemia research at Yale. “I definitely enjoy the experience […] but you have to go with the flow.”

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Biotech start-ups have become a prominent presence on college campuses nationwide, created by undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and any combination of these groups. PITCH has just chosen the first projects to bring biotechnology research into the realm of entrepreneurial ventures, with project teams that are rooted at Yale and UConn, but span the country and the world. All the projects lie across traditional territorial lines in the natural s, dipping in and out of physiology, chemistry, proteomics, and a vast array of other specific disciplines that don’t always share a sandbox.

One project from the Yale School of Medicine’s pathology department is delving into how epigenetics—changes the expression of genes driven by changes in the environment—plays a role in cancer, and finding enzyme drug targets to treat patients. Meanwhile, a lab at UConn focuses on a small nuclear receptor and how it can regulate metabolic and liver diseases using knowledge from systems biology and biochemistry. The process of doing this particular type of science is long and winding, but can boil down to three stages. Both these projects, and the remaining ten, have done most of the legwork in the first stage—termed the identifying stage—when the physical reality of academic ideas is studied.

PITCH’s help comes in as projects begin to approach the next stage: applying these ideas to create actual drugs. When labs on campus develop lead molecules or other mechanisms that could produce a new treatment, PITCH is able to move the process along with its expertise and resources. “Obviously it’s not a finished Mercedes Benz,” Wright explained, “It’s the wheels and the caps. And, we can de-risk the project and say that, through our process, it is possible to come in with a compound and modify this disease-related product show there’s a margin of safety.” This prepares projects for the final step: finding investors and marketing their product. PITCH assists new companies by connecting them with sources of venture capital, giving start-ups a path to market. The program is just beginning to find its groove, looking to make a mark on the research mentality in New Haven and forming an efficient, useful, and exploratory presence on campus.

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The movement also extends beyond the Elm City, involving two large universities and the state in working together toward a common goal. “It’s a nice model for showing how universities can work together for the common benefit and there is a lot of good reason to work together productively,” said Wright. “We hope it creates some template for how to get two big entities to work smoothly.” PITCH is by no means the first time two universities have teamed up, but it is the first to focus on the transition between the classroom, the teaching lab, the research lab, and the world around the Yale bubble. “We’re excited about finding people in the academic [that have been] identifying disease and new modalities, and using that collective expertise to move a project to something tangible to construct a company around,” Wright said. If all goes well, similar schemes may pop up on other campuses.

PITCH also hopes to achieve results for people beyond those who engage directly with the program by working in its labs. Crews stresses that just “seeing and talking to researchers is a powerful thing. The more biotech start-ups we have, the more opportunities exist [for undergraduates].” This development has the potential to make engagement with research a reality for more students. For Eskow, who just recently found her way to a research project she enjoys, “it was a little bit of a mess, but it ended well.”

For PITCH to foster the growth of more in-lab opportunities, the program will have to remain in the sightlines of the students and the community. “There are definitely ways that PITCH can be helpful to further streamline the process,” Eskow continues. But, if the idea of PITCH becomes insular or hidden away from some parts of the university, the goals of bringing more research realities to students may be moot. PITCH is beginning to mature into an important instrument for scientific growth. For now, its founders hope that the push elucidates “the importance of supporting basic research, because you never know where the discoveries useful for drug discovery are going to be made.”

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