Behind the Curtain with Biolocity | Guiding Medical Innovations to Market

Please start off by describing your current role with Biolocity and the organization’s unique model. Shawna Khouri

I am the Managing Director for Biolocity, which is a philanthropic, multi-institutional program that accelerates the commercialization of early-stage medical technologies with intellectual property held at Emory University and/or Georgia Institute of Technology. Biolocity provides a key locus of resources, including funding and expertise, that integrate to provide a seamless continuum of resources to create a robust and reproducible pipeline to grow life science innovations into commercially viable products. Biolocity educates Product Developers to expedite the success (or failure) of life science innovation to license or start up. Through our learn-by-doing approach, Biolocity accelerates introduction of devices, therapeutics, and platforms addressing human health to the marketplace.

Biolocity FlowBiolocity is stewarded by the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Emory University (Emory) and Georgia Institute of Technology (GT). Although housed inside of Emory and GT, Biolocity’s marketing reach, technology pipeline, and commercialization resources span the City of Atlanta, regional stakeholders, and national experts. Biolocity has three thrusts (BiolocityU, Biolocity Fund, and Biolocity Launch) designed to synergize complementary activities in education, funding, and development (Figure 1).

Biolocity Resources

Since 2015, Biolocity has demonstrated a robust technology pipeline and track record of health technology acceleration. Since 2015, a total to $5.2M has been awarded to 40 projects, leading to 20 start-ups, 2 licenses to larger industry partners and 3 products on the market as well as a 6.2X in follow-on-funding on each dollar awarded. Funded technologies include medical devices, diagnostics, drug delivery systems, health IT, drugs, carriers, and advanced therapeutics.


What is your professional background and how did you get involved with Biolocity?

My training and much of my early career work was in biomedical engineering and medical devices. I soon discovered my passion in remaining close to patient impact and on the commercialization/translational side of technology development. After an initial start-up in emergency airway management, I went back to get a Masters in Biomedical Innovation and Development, essentially an MBA with strategic focus on commercialization and business strategy of regulated medical technologies. After my Master’s degree, I was recruited to join the team restarting a translational program (Coulter Translational Program) across Emory & GT. Under my leadership as Managing Director, I lead that program's expansion and rebrand to become Biolocity. I am also a co-founder and Board Member of TendoNova, a development stage medical device company creating solutions to chronic tendon pain.


Tell us more about your technology screening and selection process? In other words, how do you decide which inventions to allocate resources?

Coulter ProcessWe have an extensive diligence process, borrowed from investor best practices, that drives our application process. During the application, we seek to identify and determine strategies to overcome commercialization risk. Some of the areas we evaluate include intellectual property, market, clinical, technical, regulatory, and reimbursement. This is coupled with a hands-on proposal process where we work with faculty to determine what development milestones are of the greatest importance to commercialization. We try to incorporate the priorities of the downstream investors and licensors of the technologies, which can often deviate from what might be most scientifically interesting from an academic perspective.


Saying “no” is one of the toughest requirements of the job. What do you do to soften the blow?

While difficult, getting to “no” can be one of the most rewarding experience for the innovators who come to us. We work with tremendous clinical and technical innovators and I can think of few things worse than for one of these individuals to spend years developing an innovation that has a fatal commercialization flaw. With life science time lines, each of us only gets a handful of shots on goal during our careers and time spent on something that will ultimately fail should be minimized at all costs. With this “quick kill” approach, the “no” can take many forms. Whenever possible, we try to make our feedback clear and actionable. As a result, we often see applicants return having addressed the major risks identified and get positive feedback on the diligence process and coaching from the team from applicants not selected for our funding support.


As we all know, moving early-stage life science innovation from the university lab down the long (and often circuitous) road towards commercialization is very challenging. How does Biolicity mitigate these issues and improve the likelihood of success?

One of the unique features of Biolocity is our Expert-in-Residence Core. This is a group of individuals with broad industry expertise (business, product development, M&A, regulatory, etc) who work with our in-house project managers to actively contribute to the technology development process. Whether it is putting together focus groups, vetting suppliers, or finding the right niche regulatory expertise, we use our complementary skills to round out the faculty member’s team. Moreover, having this diversity of experience around the table means that we can minimize the always-dreaded “unknown unknowns” that you invariably encounter in product development.


Since we’re on the topic, what are the successful outcomes you’re looking for as you support these promising technologies?

Program PerfromanceWe measure success in start-ups created, licenses to industry partners, products on the market, and follow-on funding. Not only do we want to create start-ups, we want to make sure these new ventures are fundable. In the last 4.5 years, we have funded 40 projects which has resulted in 20 start-ups, 2 licenses to industry partners, and 3 products on the market. Each dollar granted has been leveraged 6.2X over in follow-on funding from both non-dilutive and dilutive sources.


Would you tell us more about some of the hallmarks of Emory University and Georgia Tech: What are the fastest-growing areas of innovation and expertise for which these campuses are known?

While there is fantastic technology development across a broad range of technical disciplines and markets at both institutions, my fund is focused squarely on human health. Both campuses have robust funding and innovation in life science, in particular we see strong opportunities in cell manufacturing, brain health, oncology, cardiology, and immunology. Emory has a strong history of success in drug development, which we have leveraged in our own portfolio. Similarly, we have leveraged GT’s expertise in cell manufacturing, robotics, neuroengineering, and AI in our portfolio.


How would you describe the current life science innovation ecosystem in Georgia? What are the relative strengths and areas for improvement?

The technology pipeline in Georgia is tremendously robust. The academic institutions across the state have excellent faculty developing ground-break technologies with the ability to transform human health. While the technology pipeline is robust, there are two major gaps keeping our academic assets from commercial success: lack of early stage life science capital and few serial life science entrepreneurs.


VIC Technology Venture Development will be establishing a regional office in Atlanta in early 2020. What do you think a model like VIC’s will bring to the southeastern US?

Atlanta is a very collaborative city and VIC’s model is complementary to many of the resources that we currently have in the region. Personally, I could not be more thrilled about VIC coming to Atlanta. VIC’s model addresses two of the biggest gaps that we see as projects make their way to the end of our support: access to early-stage investment and recruiting experienced entrepreneurial talent to the new venture.


Describe some of lessons learned that you feel might be useful for other entities (universities, institutes, national labs, etc.) trying to facilitate the translation of their promising (albeit raw) innovation into products with global impact.

There are three features of Biolocity that are relatively unique and contribute substantially to our record of success. The first is strong collaboration between our program and the Offices of Technology Transfer (OTT) at our partner institutions. The majority of the technologies we work with are pre-company and OTT plays a critical role as the first “investor” supporting the intellectual property filings. The second is that the Biolocity selection committee primarily is comprised of leaders from industry, investment, and serial entrepreneurs from across the US. In many ways, they represent Biolocity’s “customer” base – the individuals and organizations what we will want to fund and acquire our portfolio assets. The third is the invasive nature of our engagement with faculty labs. We integrate with their clinical and technical acumen to provide the much needed project management, product development, business and operational expertise that you will find in any industry development team. However, these fully integrated multidisciplinary teams often are lacking in academia.


Any words of wisdom for the innovators themselves? How should they best proceed with exploring the commercial potential for their inventions, especially if they don’t have access to a resource like Biolicity?

When looking at the most successful life science start-ups, one major theme is the complementary expertise of the leadership. Working collaboratively with individuals with the requisite clinical, technical, operational, legal, and regulatory expertise dramatically will improve the commercial viability of your fledgling venture. Finding the business, regulatory, and product development expertise to complement the PI’s domain expertise can be difficult in the academic environment. While Biolocity offers many of these resources to our portfolio technologies, we encourage others to reach out to their Offices of Technology Transfer as well as local and national life science-focused incubators who are likely to have the network and infrastructure to help you build your team.