Frequently Asked Questions

General Program Questions

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 that researchers should 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 also acts as a matchmaker between projects and interested investors. Overall, SPARK’s efforts help reduce the barriers to translational research at Stanford.

Meeting in person is inconvenient. Can I do teleconferences?

We recognize that not every location has the density of potential drug development advisors that we have in the Bay Area. While geographical spread may force some virtual meetings, occasional 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 50 advisors, about 30 who attend any given SPARK session, but they started with only 5 advisors. SPARK Berlin also starts with 5 advisors.

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?

SPARK has multiple sources of funding to support projects (on average €50K/project/yr for 2 yrs). SPARK Berlin has initial funding from Stiftung Charité and the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH).

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 rarely used for salary. You can stretch €50K a long way if you focus on the most critical, value-adding experiments. 

What can one do after a patent is filed but not awarded?

SPARK can investigate with the help of TTO offices to determine how to proceed.

How can the SPARK funds be used?

The SPARK funds are not to be used for salaries or equipment except under special circumstances. When special use of funds is needed, each case will be individually decided.

How can you continue with your job and do the SPARK project?

This is a difficult balance. Hopefully the SPARK project is closely associated with your research and they can be done in parallel. 

Selection Questions

What stage of projects does SPARK take 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 tool compound, to repurposing programs that are poised to enter the clinic. SPARK also accepts projects for biologics and new chemical entities, although SPARK funding alone is not nearly enough to get these to clinic.

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

SPARK is driven to address unmet medical need, not 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.

What are criteria for projects continuing in SPARK beyond the first year?

Teams must be actively participating in SPARK: attending the evening sessions, meeting periodically with their project manager, and giving quarterly updates to the whole SPARK group. We understand that experiments can take longer than anticipated, but the SPARK management must feel that the team has made adequate progress in order to be invited to continue for a second year.

Who can apply?

We are accepting applications from all academic areas in Berlin. We will accept applications associated with the calls sent out. Applications can be accepted for funding and or mentoring. If you are not accepted into SPARK the first please try again.

What types of projects are accepted into the SPARK program?

SPARK initiative is looking for all innovative, novel projects. As long as the projects meet the requirements for SPARK they can be accepted into the program.

Corporate Relations

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.