Reporter on the road: spark- how it all started in Silicon Valley

17 August 2018
While Silicon Valley is widely recognized for its tech and internet industry, its historical role in life sciences is maybe less well-known. In the ‘70s, Stanley Cohen of Stanford and Herbert Boyer of UCSF started tinkering with bacterial plasmids in their labs. They discovered that plasmids could be enzymatically cut and pasted back together in the test tube. This enabled bacterial production of human proteins for the first time, a technological breakthrough that led Boyer to found Genentech for the production of recombinant insulin.

A tech transfer victory
While the implications of this technology for science have been far-reaching, this also proved to be an incredible success story in tech transfer. Genentech grew to become a very prolific biotech company,
launching numerous drugs for a range of human diseases. In 2009, this culminated in a takeover by Roche, a staggering $46.8 billion deal. On the other hand, Stanford and UCSF reaped the benefits of holding these successful patents, raising awareness among other universities and institutes of the benefits of tech transfer for the success of the alma mater.

The bay area is riddled with innovators – in medicine and beyond
Genentech is not a lone story out here. There are uncountable spin-offs and young start-ups scattered between the campuses of universities and biotech giants. Companies such as 23andMe have transformed genetics, and although their efforts were initially met with skepticism, they have now accumulated the largest database of linked genetic and clinical data in the world, used by companies and scientists across the globe.
Moreover, established internet companies are growing interested in medicine as well. Both Google and Facebook are now putting their online revenues to use in overcoming daunting new challenges, which aim to transform human medicine and health care as we know it. The Valley hasn’t gotten less exciting, and the horizon is looking bright for Bay Area biotech.

A unique ecosystem driving biotech innovation
But what makes this place so special? What drives young companies to move their headquarters here? “The Bay Area is a very special ecosystem,” says Dr. Kevin Grimes, professor at Stanford and a tech transfer champion. “Biotech in Silicon Valley has flourished because of that ecosystem and the infrastructure that was initially laid down by the tech industry,” he continues. “There are five critical players that make this area the ideal place for startups. Foremost, we have world-renowned universities that are engaged in exciting, cutting-edge research. Besides this, we have the venture capital firms, corporate attorneys, and the financial institutions. We also have the experienced workforce in the area to guide an idea from the bench to industry at every step of the way. We have reached the critical mass needed to make biotech thrive.”

Channeling translational knowledgeDespite benefiting from such a supportive
environment, tech transfer in the Bay Area does not miraculously happen by itself. Dr. Daria Mochly- Rosen, also from Stanford, discovered this firsthand and already shared her learnings with us during last year’s VIB seminar. More than a decade ago, her research in protein kinase C isoforms resulted in the discovery of a potent peptide inhibitor, which turned out to be highly successful at reducing the size of heart attacks in a variety of non-human models. Yet despite these promising results, getting industry excited turned out to be a bit more difficult. Eventually, they decided to start a spin-off. But it turned out that there was little institutional memory of how to make this happen.

“Daria pretty much had to start from scratch,” Grimes says. “The learning curve she had gone through and the realization that getting a promising drug to patients isn’t something that scientists know much about, gave her an idea. She realized we needed to make use of all this translational knowledge around us. We both had connections in the biotech industry, and we started going through our contacts. A few friends offered to be advisors of our tech transfer projects, bringing industry experience from medicinal chemistry to intellectual
property. We got some funding from the dean of the medical school, and SPARK was born.”

Industry and academia team up
Think of a think tank/funding agency fusion. Researchers at Stanford with potential medical applications can apply for a SPARK seed grant. They will then have to present data and progress reports regularly. “What started 12 years ago as a small group of advisors has now turned into a full seminar room with dozens of industry specialists giving feedback and guiding these projects through every step of the process,” describes Grimes. SPARKees, as project team members are called, are lured partly by the somewhat modest funding, but the main benefit is the advice and mentorship from the advisors. Attendees must sign non-disclosure agreements protecting the confidentiality of the data presented. “It turns out that our advisors are largely driven by altruism. They are dedicated mentors that really enjoy the process and sharing their expertise. We
could not have wished for anything else.”

50% of spark innovations are transferred to industry
SPARK has an impressive track record. In the last six years, SPARK programs have been initiated in a dozen new academic sites on all six continents, giving rise to new collaborations to join forces in the fight against orphan diseases and conditions mostly affecting the undeveloped world. The result: a dazzling success rate of 50% of SPARK projects transferred to industry partners. An additional 10% are advanced directly into the clinic without a partner. This latter group is comprised of projects that will benefit patients, but lack the financial return to generate interest from the biopharmaceutical industry (for example, projects repurposing generic drugs, or addressing global health problems or very rare orphan diseases). In a globalized world, the success of programs like SPARK provides a clear message to all of us: when industry and academia around the globe join forces, anything is possible.


Steven Boeynaems is a VIB alumnus who worked at the Kevin Verstrepen Lab and the Ludo Van Den Bosch Lab. Recently he traded Belgium for the Californian sun. At Stanford University he keeps pursuing his passion for science and science communication.

Twitter: @BoeynaemsSteven