Frequently Asked Questions

General Program Questions

The following list of questions may help in the understanding of the SPARK process.

Why should academic institutions participate in drug development?

There are several compelling arguments for basic science researchers to be interested in translational work:

1. Social obligation: Much of the money to fund basic science research comes from public funds, so it makes sense for researchers to try to help their discoveries improve public health if translational opportunities exist.

2. Foster culture of innovation: Academics are risk takers in that they are not afraid to embark on big high-­risk research questions if they have potential for a high impact. Industry tends to be more risk averse, as corporate heads have investors to please. Given the escalating costs and timelines associated with drug development, the field needs more innovative people tackling challenges in order to meet medical needs.

3. Champion the science: Even promising therapies need champions to promote their development across the “Valley of Death” described by Elias Zerhouni, former director of the National Institutes of Health. “If not you, then who?”

Why do academic researchers want to participate in SPARK?

In surveys of SPARK participants, the most cited benefit of SPARK is access to the expert advisors. Many participants also report that SPARK funding was critical to keep the project moving towards the next value point; highlighting the gap in available funding for experiments in this “Valley of Death.” SPARK can also acts as a matchmaker between projects and interested investors. Overall, SPARK’s efforts help reduce the barriers to translational research.

Meeting in person is inconvenient. Can I do teleconferences?

While geographical spread may force some virtual meetings, in-­person meetings are very important. Advisors are more invested when they can look researchers in the eye and see the excitement. The informal networking before and after SPARK meetings helps build the sense of community and has resulted in multiple collaborations between SPARK Scholars. In-­‐person meetings hold everyone accountable and engaged—if a researcher hears a great presentation from another team, they are driven to make their own presentation just as impressive. The same goes for advisors—everyone wants to make the great suggestion that gets the team over the next hurdle.

How many advisors does SPARK have?

SPARK Stanford now has over 150 advisors, about 30 who attend any given SPARK session, but they started with only 5 advisors. SPARK Berlin has also started with few advisors and is adding advisors as the program matures.

Does SPARK track licensing terms and patents issued?

Because the technology transfer office (TTO) negotiates all licenses and decides what patents to file, SPARK does not track royalty revenues or patents filed as metrics of our success. SPARK also does not receive any fraction of royalties generated from SPARK programs.

Have researchers’ views on SPARK participation changed over time?

Although, the funding may initially have drawn participants to SPARK, the access to education, experience and advice has grown to be the biggest motivations for participation in SPARK.

Where does SPARK funding come from?

Funding sources to support project vary between different SPARK programs around the globe. Funding is usually provided with an average €50K/project/yr for 2 yrs.

SPARK Berlin is funded by the Stiftung Charite and the Berlin Institute of Health. As of 2017 SPARK funding is integrated within the Berlin Health Innovations Validation fund.

What makes SPARK so cost-­effective is that it leverages the resources already in place in the community like top-­notch facilities, service centers, and researchers. SPARK funding is only rarely used for salary. You can stretch €50K a long way if you focus on the most critical, value-­adding experiments.

At what stage does SPARK take projects in?

SPARK has a range of projects in each class, from exciting new targets with some validated biology that need a screening effort to identify a hit compound, to repurposing programs that are poised to enter the clinic. SPARK Berlin also accepts projects for biologics, new chemical entities, diagnostics, medical devices and digital health.

Why focus on unmet medical need? Wouldn’t second in class be commercially viable?

SPARK is driven to address unmet medical needs, not to generate money. As such, the potential market earnings for a project do not factor heavily into project selection. Also, we feel the best way to utilize the innovation occurring in academia is to focus on novel approaches to treat disease.

How does SPARK handle collaborations with industry?

SPARK will often speak with contacts at pharma, biotech or Venture Capital (VC) groups to try to match SPARK projects to potential licensees. These discussions are always done as an initial contact without project full disclosure.

Do any big pharma companies help fund SPARK?

No, SPARK Berlin does not receive industry funding to support the SPARK program or fund certain teams.

What fraction of SPARK Stanford projects form startups vs. licensed by existing companies?

Of the 20 projects currently licensed, 9 were to established companies, and the other 11 were to primary investigator (PI) startups.

Does SPARK market it’s projects?

Yes, but only with the consent of the team leader. SPARK Berlin will maintain a list of non-­confidential two-­line summaries for all unlicensed projects, which we share with interested potential licensees. When a project has reached a new value point, we will also schedule phone calls with venture capital groups and pharma partners to promote the technology. Occasionally, a SPARK Scholar will ask us not to promote their project for a period of time. This is fairly rare.

Does SPARK have an investment fund to further incubate its start up companies?

Not at the moment.

SPARK Seminar Topics:

Evening SPARK Berlin sessions alternate between educational seminars taught by experts in their field (1 -­ 2 presentations/night) and project updates (2 teams/night). The annual curriculum may be adapted according to the needs of the community, but always begins with foundational topics of intellectual property, project management, TPPs. The list of topics discussed annually is outlined below.

SPARK introduction/ welcome seminar

Intellectual Property and Working with Tech Transfer Office

Drug Development

Diagnostics/ device development

Software commercialization

Reproducibility of Research and Ethics

High Throughput Screening and Medicinal Chemistry

Lead optimization and pharmacophore modelling

Clinical Trial Design

Selection of Animal Models

Regulatory considerations

Pharmacokinetics and preclinical pharmacology

Drug repurposing

Market analysis/ How to structure a VC pitch

Legal aspects of founding and venture capital

Partnering and funding

Value assessment

Bootstrapping and lean approaches

ATMP (Advanced Therapeutic Medicinal Products)

Business model development

Women in leadership and pitching