In 1946, University chemistry professor Edward C. Taylor, then a graduate student at Cornell University, came across an interesting compound whose structure resembled that of pigments found in butterfly wings. The compound, later discovered to be folic acid, was a vitamin essential to the growth of cells — including cancer cells. Taylor thought that targeting folic acid might be an effective way to arrest the growth of tumors. He synthesized a potential therapeutic but didn’t have the resources he needed to rigorously test the product.
In the early 1980s, Taylor turned to Eli Lilly, the biopharmaceutical firm for which he consulted, for help. Over the next few years, Taylor collaborated with Eli Lilly to test hundreds of candidate drugs, leading to the breakthrough development of Alimta, now widely used to treat lung cancer and mesothelioma.
“Without this kind of collaboration, Alimta would still be a curious compound sitting on a shelf in my lab,” Taylor said in an interview before his death in 2017.
The story of Alimta was an inspiration for Rohan Shah ’20, a founder of Alimtas Bioventures, a subteam of the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club focusing on biotechnology and life sciences entrepreneurship. The group partners with the University’s existing Office of Technology Licensing (OTL) to identify promising new technologies coming out of the University’s research labs and develop plans to get them from “bench to bedside,” explained Shah.
Alimtas was something of a compromise. Shah and co-founders Niko Fotopoulos ’21 and Avinash Boppana ’21 knew they couldn’t start a biotech company out of their own dorms. At the same time, they didn’t just want to invite speakers and host conferences. They wanted students to get hands-on experience.
“We found this middle ground where we could help the University build companies around promising, impactful, life science discoveries,” Shah said.
Alimtas selects technologies discovered by researchers at the University, develops business plans through “due diligence,” and then pitches these plans to venture capital investors and biotech firms.
“It’s like you are test-driving a professor’s business,” Shah explained.
The feedback Alimtas gets from investors helps refine methodologies down the road. According to Shah, this partnership between students and professors has significant benefits for both parties.
“We are helping faculty, and in the process, we are learning a lot, and they are benefitting as well,” Shah said. “It’s a symbiotic relationship that I think has produced a lot of value both for the students and for the University.”
The team’s most recent project is on a hepatitis B drug discovery platform developed by Alexander Ploss, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology. In December of 2019, ten members of the Alimtas team traveled to San Francisco, Calif. to pitch the platform to the leadership of biotech giants like Gilead and Genentech.
The team, which is made up of students from multiple class years majoring in different departments — many with little to no experience with entrepreneurship — presented complex technologies to senior scientists.
“It’s amazing to see people from diverse backgrounds be so engaged and be speaking at such a high level,” Shah said. “People are learning skills that they can use for the rest of their lives.”
The understanding of how research scales into businesses, how the healthcare industry works, and who the major stakeholders are in biotechnology, is not something that many students could learn in classes or online, according to Sarah Lin ’22, current co-director of Alimtas alongside Ryan Thorpe ’22.
“There’s definitely several tiers of knowledge that we have gained as a club,” Thorpe added.
Alimtas’s founding was partially motivated by Shah’s personal experience with cancer. Two of his cousins passed away from leukemia, the most recent in 2013. Four years later, a type of therapy called CAR-T was released, a way to fight cancer by retraining the body’s immune cells. The rapid development of this new technology, one that could have saved his cousin’s life, propelled Shah to become a Molecular Biology major and drew him towards translational research.
“You can cure people harnessing biology,” Shah said. “Yes, there is a huge failure rate, but if it does work, you can transform the lives of millions of people.”
Shah spent his first summers in college interning at biotechnology companies and saw that the industry was taking off and that students needed to be prepared with the knowledge and expertise to enter this burgeoning field.
“There is a need for people who straddle both the science and business sides — who can be on the cutting edge of creating companies that are bringing these technologies to market and solving these huge issues,“ Shah said.
Alimtas’s first project was on a scaffold for patterning tissue repair in spinal cord injuries, developed by Professor of Chemistry Jeffrey Schwartz. The team of 12 quickly realized, though, that they needed to learn more about technology transfer. They sought mentors on and off campus, including Anne-Marie Maman ’84, Executive Director of the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council; Anthony Williams, New Ventures Associate at OTL; and Andrew Wood, commercial transformation lead, Global Human Health at Merck.
According to Maman, the group gives students who have an interest in life sciences and in entrepreneurship an opportunity to understand how the business side of biotech works. Regulatory issues and lengthy timelines — taking 10 years to get a drug to market is considered fast — make this venture different from launching an app or retail company.
Both Maman and Williams were impressed with the quality of the Alimtas’s work, especially considering that the team is entirely composed of undergraduates doing the kind of research typically done by specialized business school students.
“It’s a struggle to find people who have a combination of the drive, enthusiasm, interest, and business focus to help us by doing some of this development work,” Williams said. “Alimtas has proven themselves to be very capable at coming up with novel and well-researched business plans.”
The team meets once or twice a week, where they often split into smaller groups to discuss strategies and consult with mentors. Each meeting might focus on a specific module, such as how to value a certain technology, or the process of conducting clinical trials.
The goal is to conduct “due diligence” — meaning that students understand the scientific details of the technology, how it compares to existing solutions, and the pipeline for development and financing. Intensive research goes into each colorful, organized slide of a “pitch deck,” which they present to investors.
Most of the members of the Alimtas team had extensive research experience in the laboratory — but knew little about how to bring biotechnology research to market.
“I didn’t really know how, after you make a discovery, how that gets out there and impacts people’s lives,” electrical engineering concentrator Thorpe said.
Lin, who is a molecular biology concentrator, said that even she was unaware of the process of drug discovery, comparing it to a black box. But through discussion and hard work, the team went through the steps of what it takes to create a company.
The first step might be understanding the science. Hepatitis B is a viral infection that affects the liver, where chronic infection can lead to liver cirrhosis and carcinoma. The World Health Organization estimates that in 2015, more than 200 million people worldwide were living with chronic infection. The new drug platform is based on Ploss’ discovery of a factor that blocks the transformation of a certain type of DNA in the hepatitis B virus necessary for its pathogenicity.
Alimtas has had an impact on the hepatitis B platform. Following the pitch in San Francisco, Ploss was contacted by multiple interested investors. He was also awarded grants, including funding from the University’s Intellectual Property Accelerator Fund for testing in cell culture and animal models. However, the work is still far from sustaining a company, and Alimtas’s business plans are simply a suggestion. The intellectual property behind the technology ultimately belongs to the University, which works with professors to license it to outside partners or to start their own companies.
Hubs like the newly founded Princeton Innovation Center BioLabs could provide a space to conduct the necessary early-stage research. The facility, which can provide office and wet lab space for more than 25 start-ups, capitalizes on a renewed interest from the New Jersey area and the country at large in commercializing healthcare technologies. At the end of the semester, the team plans to travel to Boston, where they will expand their reach to more partners and investors.
“I’m hoping that by bringing in new people from the industry side, and also students who are excited about biotech and entrepreneurship, we can really push forward the level of entrepreneurship to an even higher level,” Thorpe said of Alimtas’s future.
However, the real goal, Shah noted, was always to inspire students to get involved in biotechnology and prepare them for future careers. To that end, each year the Alimtas team selects a new technology to develop and pitch, gaining exposure to a range of fields and ideas.
“Our main objective as students is to learn,” Shah emphasized. “We are trying to learn how to do this, to be exposed to the biotechnology industry.”
Being a part of Alimtas has changed Thorpe and Lin’s perspective of what entrepreneurship means, as well as their career paths.
“Coming into Princeton, people told me research or med school,” Lin said of the options available to a biology major. “But there is so much opportunity in industry, where you combine basic scientific research skills with thinking about what the world needs.”
In that case, Alimtas’s greatest achievement may be opening avenues of opportunity.
“The ultimate value of Alimtas is not what we are doing for the professors or the University,” Shah said. “It’s about inspiring students to go into this industry. In the end, these students will become the next generation of leaders who will discover and develop new medicines like Alimta.”