The Lansing Regional SBIR + MedTech Accelerator has helped early-stage medical technology companies secure SBIR/STTR grants and bridge critical funding gaps while fostering collaboration and growth in the region, with promising success stories such as Tarn BioSciences and CavGene Therapeutics.
Written by Rich Keener
In a 2019 U.S. News and World Report survey of the 50 states, Michigan was found to be below average in several economic and health statistics. Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) applications serve as a valuable indicator of economic health, yet Michigan received just 2 percent ($74 million) of the $3.7 billion in funding available through the program in fiscal year 2019. This disparity underscored the urgent need for innovation in Michigan to address its economic and health-related challenges.
The need for a MedTech business accelerator
For several years, programs at the Michigan State University Research Foundation and its wholly owned subsidiary, Spartan Innovations, have been recognized for their work in helping new startup companies access the SBIR/STTR programs. After the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP) won an award from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to develop a MedTech corridor in the Lansing region, the two organizations came together to create a program focused on the medical sector.
The proposal was for an accelerator in the region to increase the number and success rates of SBIR/STTR applications for small businesses in the medical technology space. The goal was to turn research into marketable work and to enable companies to address some of the world’s MedTech needs.
LEAP approved the proposal, and the Lansing Regional SBIR + MedTech Accelerator was born. The accelerator provides selected teams with support education, training, mentoring, and assistance in writing their SBIR/STTR grants.
With funding from LEAP and facilitated by Spartan Innovations, the accelerator targets early-stage medical technologies. The program’s first cohort was completed in 2022 and featured ten companies and 26 different speakers from 16 different organizations.
Spartan Innovations entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR) Marquicia Pierce was the program director for the second cohort of ten companies, which wrapped up this fall. Pierce went through the first cohort working with a company on their targeted alpha therapeutics proposal.
“Being able to see the beginnings of the MedTech Accelerator was really helpful,” Pierce said. “I’ve been on a couple of teams that successfully achieved an SBIR award, so being able to run the program showed me how to work with the teams, what were some of the milestones that could help them really succeed in that short amount of time. So, I kind of adapted the program with three main pillars.”
The first of these key updates to the 2023 cohort experience led by Pierce was implementing “bite-sized, just-in-time learning.”
“‘Lecture overwhelm’ is a common challenge in many cohort settings, often leaving teams with so much information they don’t know where to start,” Pierce said.
To address this issue in the second cohort, she prioritized shorter (around 40 minutes in length), actionable lectures, providing teams with a clear idea of their next steps. This was supplemented with hands-on working sessions during or at the end of each session.
The second pillar for 2023 was a custom cohort landing page via an online collaboration workspace, which Pierce said provided key advantages over similar applications.
Finally, the third pillar was enabling “DIY, together” sessions for common roadblocks. These included mastermind (or co-working) sessions to discuss what they were working on that week, themed around topics that usually are roadblocks for MedTech founders: intellectual property strategy, financial forecasting, and regulatory strategy.
One of the success stories from the first cohort is Tarn BioSciences, an East Lansing biotech company with the mission to discover and develop therapies for the world’s deadliest infectious disease, tuberculosis, as well as nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) and other mycobacterial infections.
Tarn CEO Jim Vrbanac was an EIR at Spartan Innovations from 2019 to 2022 and assisted with Tarn and other companies in the spring of 2021. Vrbanac is thankful for his involvement with the MedTech Accelerator and what he learned while going through the program.
“I learned through the process where we need to be, how and when to approach investors, assistance with running a business, and other valuable skills,” Vrbanac said.
After completing the program, Tarn submitted an STTR proposal, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (an institute of the National Institutes of Health), awarded them more than $590,000. The company currently is moving its research forward.
Vrbanac also mentioned the support of Frank Urban, director of venture creation for life sciences at Spartan Innovations and the primary administrator of the MedTech Accelerator.
“The role of Frank Urban in coaching and supporting EIRs at Spartan Innovations is critical to the success of EIRs and the companies they support, and the same can be said for LEAP,” he said. “I consider them to be an important resource for Tarn Biosciences.”
Urban in turn discussed the importance of organizations going through the accelerator with other companies also trying to get grants.
“In the accelerator cohort, companies can share experiences and learn from one another as well as Spartan Innovations and BBC Entrepreneurial Training and Consulting, a partner in the program,” Urban said. “This has saved a lot of time and really streamlined the process of assisting companies in the program versus performing the process with each company individually.”
LEAP has served in a support role for Tarn BioSciences. They helped Tarn secure a lease at the Technology Innovation Center (TIC), a startup incubator facility managed by the MSU Research Foundation in East Lansing and have been working with the company in consulting and advising toward their application for a grant through the Business Accelerator Fund (BAF) statewide program, which LEAP manages on behalf of the Lansing region.
LEAP has also supported another company that successfully went through the first cohort, CavGene Therapeutics. CavGene is a startup gene therapy company based out of East Lansing and Grand Rapids focused on developing improved therapeutics for neurodegenerative disease, specifically Parkinson’s disease. CavGene is doing work in gene therapy to overcome levodopa-induced dyskinesia (LID) in patients with Parkinson’s disease. This often involves the hyperkinetic movements sometimes associated with Parkinson’s.
LEAP has worked with CavGene to facilitate a successful $6,100 discretionary BAF award in the summer of 2023, which paid for market research to be conducted with clinicians, payers, and medical affairs professionals.
While CavGene was not funded through the MedTech Accelerator, they received a good score from the National Institutes of Health and are resubmitting their proposal in January of 2024.
Kathy Steece-Collier is CavGene’s co-founder and chief scientific officer and professor of translational neuroscience at Michigan State. Steece-Collier said there was a very steep learning curve working with the MedTech Accelerator, but she is grateful for it.
“In a nutshell, I have learned, and am continuing to learn, about the partnership it takes to forward promising preclinical research toward clinical development,” she said. “The dream of bringing my research to improve human health seems possible with the partnership being provided through this program.”
LEAP Chief Operating Officer Keith Lambert is encouraged by the work of Tan and CavGene.
“Lansing Regional SBIR + Medtech Accelerator program’s second cohort has wrapped up, but the support for Tarn and CavGene doesn’t stop there,” Lambert said. “LEAP and the MSU Research Foundation will continue to provide resources and support to help propel them toward their greatest potential moving forward.
“We are hopeful that thanks to the mentorship, coaching, and technical assistance provided through this accelerator program that both companies will have success with securing additional federal funds like SBIR and STTR soon.”
The future of the MedTech accelerator
Urban said that after the first cohort in 2022, they found that the companies coming into the accelerator needed additional business and customer discovery assistance to help them determine their grant strategies, so they extended the second cohort to 18 weeks (an additional four weeks).
“We also pivoted a few other aspects of the accelerator as we learned what companies needed and how we can best help them have successful grant submissions,” Urban said. “We feel we now have a stronger program and have approached the state for funding to extend the program for an additional three years, while expanding the focus of the program to cover several industry verticals beyond medical technologies.”
This article was first published by the MSU Research Foundation.