National Cancer Institute NCI Cancer Bulletin: A Trusted Source for Cancer Research News
May 1, 2012 • Volume 9 / Number 9

Community Update

The Leading Edge: Small Businesses Bring Novel Cancer Technologies to Market

Representatives from Firefly BioWorks, Inc., meet with potential strategic partners during a partnering break at the 2012 SBIR Investor Forum.Representatives from Firefly BioWorks, Inc., meet with potential strategic partners during a partnering break at the 2012 SBIR Investor Forum.

Eighteen companies funded by NCI’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Development Center presented the next generation of cancer therapeutics, diagnostics, and devices at the SBIR 2012 Investor Forum, held April 18 at Agilent Technologies in Santa Clara, CA. Nearly 200 SBIR-funded companies, investors, venture capitalists, and strategic partners attended the meeting.

“Small businesses play a vital role in cancer research in our nation,” said Michael Weingarten, director of the SBIR Development Center. “NCI is committed to fostering public-private partnerships that will help bring new cancer technologies to market to support clinicians and patients in the fight against cancer.”

With $115 million in annual funding, SBIR is one of the largest sources of early-stage funding for small businesses involved in cancer research. SBIR looks for companies on the leading edge of innovation and provides them with the funding necessary to develop their technologies and move them toward commercialization.

In 2010, companies that presented at the Investor Forum raised more than $230 million in funding from third parties. At the 2012 Investor Forum, more than 150 partnering meetings took place that began discussions about future collaborations. Partnerships and funding are critical to help move new cancer technologies through product development and clinical trials.

“The Investor Forum was extraordinarily productive for us,” said Metabolomx CEO Dr. Paul Rhodes. “We made substantive contacts at the conference and have concrete joint projects on the table to discuss with several companies.”

Panelists discuss investor perspectives on future discoveries in cancer research.Panelists discuss investor perspectives on future discoveries in cancer research.

The companies selected to present at the 2012 Investor Forum were chosen based on the strength of their technological and commercial potential by a review panel composed of scientific and life science investment experts.

“We learned a lot [at the forum] about novel cancer technologies that emerging companies are developing,” said Phil Gutry, principal of MPM Capital, a venture capital firm that focuses on the life sciences. “NCI’s SBIR serves a valuable role in the discovery of new cancer innovations and helps to fill a gap to move early-stage research from the lab to the clinic.”  

The presenting SBIR-funded companies are working on technologies that would address significant needs in cancer research and care, including:

  • novel immunotherapeutics
  • a universal biomarker detection platform that would help improve cancer diagnosis and treatment stratification;
  • a testing platform for the early detection of disease at the cellular level;
  • a breath test for lung and other cancers, for use initially as a companion diagnostic and possibly a prospective prescreen;
  • diagnostic medical devices that use optical technologies to noninvasively identify precancerous epithelial tissue; and
  • in vitro assays to improve drug development and testing.

Dr. Ed Harlow, special advisor to NCI Director Dr. Harold Varmus, provided the keynote address. He shared insights and updates on NCI’s Provocative Questions Project, which is intended to engage a diverse range of scientists to define and solve the major understudied problems in cancer research.

Attendees also received an update from Weingarten, who discussed new initiatives, funding opportunities, and how investors and strategic partners can benefit from the SBIR program. Dr. Jodi Black, deputy director of the Division of Extramural Research Activities at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, talked about that institute’s SBIR program and translational research efforts to support innovations to improve the treatment of heart, lung, and blood diseases.

The forum closed with a panel discussion on emerging trends in the financing of early-stage cancer companies, led by Michael J. O’Donnell, a partner at Morrison Foerster, with panelists Dr. Jeff Settleman of Genentech, Dr. Armen Shanafelt of Lilly Ventures, Dr. Alex de Winter of Mohr Davidow Ventures, and Brian Atwood of Versant Ventures.

More information about the 2012 NCI SBIR Investor Forum, the presenting companies, and their innovative cancer technologies is available online.