Debrief: Peter Donnelly, SBU technology licensing

Stony Brook University technology transfer czar Pete Donnelly.

Bridging the commercial world and SBU’s world-class faculty and student research, Peter Donnelly accepts a critical (but not impossible) mission: develop markets for science and technology commercialization. The tech-licensing director has made a career of translating research into innovative consumables, including stints as entrepreneur, corporate suit, academic and government staffer. Throw in his work at Intel and the Boston Consulting Group – and graduate degrees in biotech, business and economics from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Michigan – and Donnelly’s qualifications as a shepherd of Long Island’s innovation economy are clear. In his words:

MAN ON A MISSION: I work with faculty, staff and student researchers to help them understand the commercial application of their work. Where it looks like there’s really good promise, we’ll patent it or partner with industry to get a startup off the ground.

GOTTA STARTUP SOMEWHERE: We’re spending more time in the startup area these days, out of necessity. As a rule, innovation coming out of universities is not at the level of development where an established company would license it. The startup engages higher risk and high reward, and ultimately moves forward in conjunction with a strategic player or larger business.

DOING WELL, THANKS: I don’t want to sound like Stony Brook is about to vault into the highest echelons of technology commercialization, but we’re doing very well. We’re not Stanford or MIT and we might never get there, in terms of sheer size, but we can punch at our weight relative to our research base.

SLOW BURN: Generally speaking, innovation coming out of a university has a pretty long fuse. Things don’t generally go from the lab to IP to licensed product to market to selling gangbusters in two years. We hope to look at our portfolio at all stages and say we’re healthy, and right now, it’s easy to find examples of good health at all stages.

FOR EXAMPLE: The best example of a product that went through the process is ReoPro, a pharmaceutical used in various heart surgeries. It’s on the market. It’s a blockbuster drug. And it has returned to Stony Brook and its inventors more than $200 million. It all happened before I got here, certainly, but it’s a great illustration of going through the stages of development with a long fuse. It took more than 10 years to get there.

ON TRACK: There’s an aerosolized antibiotic that we licensed to a public company called Nektar, which sublicensed it to a larger entity, Bayer, which has the product in Phase 3 human clinical trials. That’s the stage before you apply to the FDA for product approval.

NOT TO MENTION: Another good example of how things work is CadherRx, the result of a three-way deal between Stony Brook and two partners who tied up for a joint venture: a venture capitalist called Avalon and GlaxoSmithKline. The partners have basically pooled $500 million to create 10 new companies, and CadherRx is one of the 10. It’s based on research coming out of Stony Brook by a researcher named Sabine Brouxhon, who’s working on an antibody with the potential to treat multiple forms of cancer.

GO TEAM: The team here did very good work before I got here to understand the importance of Sabine’s work and the opportunity. Almost immediately upon my arrival, I attended a life sciences summit run by the Stony Brook Center for Biotechnology, one of our close sister organizations in commercialization, and I met one of the principals in this Avalon-GSK partnership. I described the work and we agreed to dive deeper … after some extended negotiation, they formed CadherRx and licensed the technology.

CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM: We’re confident this science will get its chance to be successful. When bringing a potential product to market, it can fail for many reasons, some of them avoidable, some not. The biggest, most obvious non-avoidable roadblock is the science doesn’t play out – it doesn’t do what it’s designed to do. You want to avoid startup error, university error or otherwise going down the wrong path. CadherRx is going to get a proper run because of the resources draped around it.

NOT THERE YET: I’d characterize the present condition of the Long Island innovation economy as high potential waiting to be realized. I certainly recognize that the region has pushed forward on things like this in the past and fallen short. I’m more optimistic now because we’re really hitting on all cylinders in a lot of areas, and you have to hit on a lot of cylinders for any economy to succeed.

SUSTAINED: We’re working to get to a long-term-sustainable innovation economy, but I’d say we’re not yet above the sustaining threshold. We need to get to a point where it’s a self-sustaining pipeline of great science combined with entrepreneurs and investors, all moving together toward success. A point where people leave these successful ventures with money in their pockets – then come back and do it again.

Interview by GREGORY ZELLER