New pitch competition marries science and business

Memphis is understood as a hotbed of healthcare innovation with organizations such as Memphis Bioworks and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. The Memphis Scipreneuer Challenge pushes scientists to market their breakthroughs to the business community.

Picture a scientist. Chances are your scientist is wearing a white lab coat, maybe holding a beaker, surrounded by chalkboards of complex calculations. You likely didn’t picture a three piece suit and a briefcase.

While it’s not the scientist of our collective imagination, today’s scientific work is as much business as it is discovery. Unfortunately for aspiring researchers, even their own institutions and industries often fail to recognize the need for a balanced formula — one part brilliant idea, one part business acumen to move from concept to reality.

There is a breakdown, a siloing that often leaves the scientific and business communities struggling to connect their unique skills to fully develop life-changing breakthroughs. In short, what if the mythical “cure for cancer” is just waiting for a decent business plan?

Memphis has a host of programs focusing on network and entrepreneurial development for the medical community such as Memphis Bioworks and the ZeroTo510k accelerator, but newcomer Memphis Scipreneur Challenge is on a mission to address the disconnect unique to the scientific community.

Modeled on Vanderbilt University’s TechVenture Challenge, MSC is a seven-week training and networking program that pairs students and post-doctoral fellows with local scientists, research institutions, andc business leaders.

Beginning in February, these diverse teams attended weekly seminars, received mentoring and conducted extensive market research to develop mock business plans for STEM-related intellectual properties. The IPs represented biomedical developments from vaccines to genome visualization to the electrodes used to monitor vital signs.

Kayla Rodriguez Graff (L), Daniel Bastardo Blanco, Kimbra Turner, Anne Guetschow, Miranda Jarrett are members of the first Scipreneur Challenge's winning team.





















The IPs were supplied by local research institutions, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, University of Tennessee Health Science Center and the University of Memphis. Participants got real-world discoveries to develop and the research institutions showcased their promising IPs among potential investors and entrepreneurs.

The program culminated with the inaugural MSC pitch competition on April 5th. The top pitch took home a $4,000 prize, but the real value was the network building and new-forged collaborative spirit among industries and individuals.

Samit Ganguly, a PhD candidate at UTHSC as well as an event organizer, credited this unique coalition for the competition’s electric atmosphere.

“From undergraduate students, post-doctoral research scientists, and talented business students to experienced academic (and) business professionals, (we) all came on the same table and brainstormed, learned, asked questions and transcended such infectious energy and enthusiasm,” he beamed.

Kimbra Turner, a post-doctoral fellow at St. Jude and challenge participant, also found the most value in stepping out of her regular professional circles.

“Scipreneur gave me a chance to expand my local network. (It) afforded me the opportunity to collaborate not only with fellow students and post-docs from the area, but also to interact with other scientific and business minds in the greater Memphis community,” she said. “I was able to generate relationships with people that I would not have otherwise met, all while learning about the business side of science.”

Even before MSC was hatched, collaboration built its nest. The program was brought to Memphis by the Mid-South Academic Alliance, a networking program for graduate and post-doctoral students run by Life Science Tennessee, a state-wide nonprofit supporting the biotech industry. It represents more than 90 member organizations including research institutions, entrepreneurial organizations, venture capitalists and biotech sectors like medical devices and pharmaceuticals.

Organizing for the first MSC began last summer when Parimal Samir, the now-entrepreneurship director of MSAA, moved to Memphis.

“I had been involved in (Vanderbilt's) TechVenture Challenge. We thought that we need to start something similar in Memphis,” Samir said.

He began the initial planning with MSAA executive director Kamalika Mukherjee and visual communications director Kimbra Turner, as well as James Bell, a local entrepreneur and MSAA advisor, but he credits a larger team with its success.

“A number of other people volunteered their time and effort to help organize the first iteration of the event. It would have been impossible for us to do this without their help.” The event’s principal partners were Memphis Bioworks, Launch Tennessee, Crews Center for Entrepreneurship at University of Memphis, University of Tennessee Research Foundation and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

For Mukherjee, it’s this deep collaboration among organizations that makes MSC a unique asset not just to participants but to the city’s overall entrepreneurial landscape.

“Say a team of students and scientists from Christian Brother’s University and St. Jude were working with tech transfer professionals and inventor[s] of an IP generated at UTHSC, under the mentorship of entrepreneurs from University of Memphis and Memphis Bioworks,” she explained.

“Add to that expertise and mentorship offered by leading law firms such as Baker Donelson, regulatory consultants such as MRC-X, venture development organizations like Start Co., and entrepreneurship hubs like Crews Center.”

This web of support is how ideas become breakthroughs. This is how silos are destroyed.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is an applied anthropologist with a focus in business and community development. Cole is a life-long Memphian, stand-up comic, and all-around "creative" who enjoys hyphens and is trying to post more on Twitter. Follow them @stockingofcole. 
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