Zev Sunleaf is a recent transplant to CHOP and Philadelphia. Born in Maryland and growing up in the Midwest, Zev spent 15 years at the University of Iowa Research Foundation, the last 5 as Executive Director. Before that, he spent 9 years as Vice President of two University of Iowa spinout companies, Solltech, Inc. and Caviforce Technologies.
What brought you to Philadelphia all the way from Iowa?
I had a chance to collaborate with CHOP a few years ago as part of a large research and commercialization project. At the time, I was able to meet people at CHOP and in the Philadelphia community. I continued to visit Philadelphia more over the intervening years at events like BIO. I was very impressed with the scope and impact of the research at CHOP and by the entrepreneurial growth in Philly. When the position came open, I applied, hoping to be able to become part of CHOP.
What potential do you see for Philadelphia in regards to the biotech community?
Unlimited. Given the collaborations between CHOP, Penn, Wistar, Jefferson, Temple, University of the Sciences and so many others, there is tremendous potential. I have experienced a very open and engaged environment, eager to work with local entrepreneurs, service providers and investors. As someone who came from an area with fewer research institutions, companies and VCs, I am amazed at all that you have happening here. And happy to see that there is more collaboration than competition. It will help us advance.
What challenges do you see for Philadelphia in regards to the biotech community?
As is often the case, most challenges revolve around people, partners and funding. With all of the exciting research going on, finding companies to develop those technologies, or experienced entrepreneurs, or funding to start new companies – these things are always a challenge. Philadelphia has more of these important components than where I came from. But because you have so much more research occurring here, and continuing to grow, the need is also growing. It is fantastic to see all of the research and cooperation, but because of extensive scientific investigation, the companies, people and funding necessary to bring those ideas to the next level of development is also continuing to grow.
What is your role and priorities at CHOP?
The role of the Office of Technology Transfer and Office of Entrepreneurism and Innovation is to help CHOP develop breakthroughs that positively impact our patients and their families. We might out-license new vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics and devices or start new companies to help bring discoveries to children. We are also involved in intrapreneurship; creating new software, systems and programs to improve the patient experience and provide world-class pediatric care.
My role is to help move these priorities forward by removing barriers and creating the partnerships that help advance inventions and collaborative development. My goal is to find a home for our technologies, and to develop partnerships to work with our PIs in order to help advance the research and clinical care.
What is CHOP up to now?
We are working with researchers, clinicians, nurses, programmers and others at CHOP to identify those breakthroughs which can help us to deliver the best care to our patient-families. We are bringing together the resources to help develop those ideas into solutions that can impact children. Sometimes we incubate those discoveries within CHOP, and other times we seek partners early on to help bring these discoveries to market. It varies by technology, but we are working to increase our outreach and engagement in order meet these needs.
Could you tell us a little bit about one exciting project that you are currently working on now?
Probably one of the most exciting things I can talk about is CHOP’s ongoing development of an artificial womb system. The potential of this work to decrease the morbidity risk for extremely premature infants, those born at 23 to 28 weeks, would have a huge impact on these children and their families. To be a part of the collaboration of neonatologists, fetal medicine specialists, respiratory therapists, perfusionists and others at CHOP to bring this forward is very exciting. Dr. Alan Flake and his team have made tremendous progress, which has generated significant interest, and we are all energized by the prospect of helping these infants.
What is CHOP looking for with relevance to the biotech community?
Partners. People and companies that can help bridge the development gap so that our breakthroughs reach not only CHOP patients, but children worldwide. And other academic institutions and companies we can work with to help to advance their discoveries for the benefit of children. We know they are out there and we want them to think of CHOP first when they are looking for the next great thing in medicine!
Zev Sunleaf is Vice President of Technology Transfer, Commercialization & Innovation at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a world-renowned research institute leading medical breakthroughs and innovations.