February 6, 2024
Eshelman Innovation begins its second decade with a new look and a blueprint for moving groundbreaking health care therapeutics and digital health ideas to reality.
Written by Logan Ward
It took the urgency of a global pandemic to hone the “Eshelman Way.”
The Eshelman Way is shorthand for the winning process forged by trial and error by the Eshelman Institute for Innovation, launched in 2014 with a $100 million gift — the largest individual commitment in the University’s history — from Carolina alumnus Fred Eshelman to turn great ideas into health care products and services that improve lives in North Carolina and throughout the world.
A decade later, after much success and growth, the institute, housed within the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, is rebranding as Eshelman Innovation.
Eshelman Innovation’s foundational success is the Rapidly Emerging Antiviral Drug Development Initiative. A full 18 months before the emergence of the novel coronavirus, the institute worked with READDI’s founders, a trio of world-class Carolina virologists, to translate their research into antiviral drugs to protect the world from viruses with pandemic potential. It was a great idea with promising benefits. But turning the idea into reality proved far from easy, even as COVID-19 encircled the globe, leaving devastation in its wake.
The READDI startup journey was fraught with unforeseen challenges, dead ends and naysayers, but due to the urgency of the pandemic, the team refused to give up. After countless hours of scientific and market research, number crunching, trips back to the proverbial drawing board to apply newly gained knowledge and nearly 600 pitch meetings, the founders raised more than $90 million.
That money allowed READDI to incorporate as a nonprofit UNC-Chapel Hill associated entity and hire a CEO, Jimmy Rosen, who is accelerating READDI’s success. Most important, the money is funding drug discovery and development work in advance of the next catastrophic viral outbreak. Among other milestones, READDI is now a core implementation partner in the London-based 100 Days Mission, the world’s leading pandemic preparedness effort, launched by the Group of Seven countries.
The blueprint for the Eshelman Way grew out of lessons learned on the road to READDI’s success.
“Life is full of challenges. That’s part of the journey. At Eshelman Innovation, when we encounter a health care problem, whether that’s preparing for the next pandemic or helping solve the opioid crisis, we don’t back away. We charge toward it,” says Eshelman Innovation Executive Director John Bamforth, Ph.D. “We may not have the answer right now, but we’ll find a way.
“The way to better life has always been through innovation, but great ideas alone can’t change the world. That’s where Eshelman Innovation comes in.”
Think of the Eshelman Innovation process, forged in the fire of experience, as an engine that accelerates health care innovation. Fueling the engine are key inputs from around North Carolina, second among U.S. states in research dollars invested. This rich reservoir of expertise starts with the number one pharmacy school in the country and extends across campus and throughout the entire UNC System to Duke University, Research Triangle organizations like RTI International and beyond. Eshelman Innovation also draws from deep wells of community-based knowledge and expertise from the world of business, commercialization and finance.
In the outputs column is a growing portfolio of startup companies and drugs under development. Eshelman Innovation’s Therapeutics Accelerator has driven novel solutions to unmet needs in oncology, neuroscience and infectious diseases. Its Venture Studio nurtures game-changing digital health startups to combat harms caused by opioid use disorder, food insecurity and more.
While North Carolina ranks second in research investment, it lags behind at 20th in translation, the practical application of knowledge gained from research. Eshelman Innovation is helping close the translation gap.
“The patient impact is only realized when research is extended to the point of developmental translation,” says Eshelman, Pharm.D., a pharmaceutical industry entrepreneur. “That’s what the institute is aiming for.”
By applying its innovation engine to future health care challenges and translating new ideas into products and services, Eshelman Innovation will continue to drive economic development in North Carolina and bring financial returns to the University.
The Eshelman Innovation team dives in and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with entrepreneurs, helping them establish proof of concept, infrastructure, project management and ultimately commercialization.
Take, for example, the opioid use disorder crisis, which Eshelman Innovation is addressing on both the digital health and therapeutics fronts.
Instead of throwing money at the problem from a distance, Eshelman Innovation’s Venture Studio team, along with venture studio partner High Alpha, traveled to rural Western North Carolina, where the crisis is acute. There, they found a local partner (the Mountain Area Health Education Center) and started listening and asking questions and — inspired by the READDI lesson — listening some more to get to the heart of a practical solution.
“We listened to community members. We brought in addiction specialists working on the front lines of the crisis,” says Bob Dieterle, managing director of the Venture Studio. Firsthand knowledge and insights from these locals helped the Eshelman Innovation team rapidly develop Goldie, a digital health platform for first responders.
The name refers to the so-called “golden window” of 24-to-72 hours after an opioid overdose, when intervention can significantly improve outcomes. Goldie helps personnel in the field track patients and encounters, capture signed consent forms, apply clinical protocols, coordinate with social service organizations and more.
Eshelman Innovation recently announced that Goldie will pilot the platform in rural Carteret County in eastern North Carolina.
“If this technology can scale up, it could completely change the trajectory of the opioid crisis in North Carolina,” Dieterle says.
Meanwhile, Eshelman Innovation’s Therapeutics Accelerator is supporting a portfolio of research into opioid alternatives to pain treatment. One promising approach is developing compounds that can silence neurons to eliminate the unpleasantness of any painful injury or disease.
What differentiates this research from other academic research is the commercialization support the institute provides faculty — from market analysis to venture capital contacts. Instead of hoping academic research might translate into a beneficial product or service by happy accident, Eshelman Innovation brings intentionality and translational expertise to greatly improve the odds of success.
“I get to be at the interface of bringing information to faculty and asking not just ‘What do you have in the way of research?’ but also ‘What can you build and how do you build it with commercialization in mind?” says Sumitra Pati, Ph.D., Commercial Strategy Director of the Therapeutics Accelerator.
“Faculty are excited about creating new knowledge, new data, new compounds and new approaches to improve human health, but they aren’t necessarily trained in drug development and entrepreneurship,” says Eshelman School of Pharmacy Dean Angela Kashuba, Pharm.D. “Eshelman Innovation is working for the faculty member, for the project, for the people of North Carolina to get those innovations out of the University for maximum impact.”
Helping others is Eshelman Innovation’s reason for being, Bamforth says. “We’re about, ‘Let’s help you take this novel science and let’s get it off the campus and let’s try and create new products, create new companies that can drive the innovation to its end goal of impacting patients.”
To learn about the many exciting things happening at Eshelman Innovation, explore the new website. Look for more stories in the coming weeks and months about Eshelman Innovation news and projects.