New Program Aims to Boost Translational Research

SPARK Colorado guides entrepreneurial physicians and scientists

By Cigdem H. Benam, PhD


(October 2018) CU Innovations, the technology transfer office of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, has launched an initiative to help University researchers move from the early stages of discovery and development to having a tangible product to market.

SPARK Colorado aims to build a bridge between scientist’s lab bench to patient’s bedside by providing funding, industry mentorship, and a curriculum tailored for the needs of participating faculty and researchers. It seeks> to help faculty navigate the “valley of death,” a period during which a majority of promising projects fail to survive.  

“We want to build networks that allow our faculty to thrive as they focus on conducting cutting-edge research, ways to improve the quality of life for their patients and our communities,” said CU Anschutz Medical Campus Chancellor Donald Elliman Jr.   

“Our faculty have invested significantly in their own training to help people and to better understand human health,” he said. “In many cases, they haven’t had time to focus on the demands of building a business, from understanding raising funds to mastering supply chains. Our job is to help them make those connections and extend their innovations to more people who need their help. We want to nurture their creations so that they can thrive.”  

SPARK Colorado is modeled after the translational research accelerator program started in 2006 at Stanford University, which has recorded a success rate of 60 percent in terms of moving projects either to clinical trial or licensure.   

Daria Mochly-Rosen, PhD, founder and director of SPARK at Stanford University School of Medicine, said she wanted to enable “both cultures to meet in the same room.” She wanted to blend “savviness of industry” with “out-of-the-box thinking of academia.”  

Mochly-Rosen recognized this need when she took a year off from Stanford to work in industry, where she became convinced that the best outcome for patients would be to bridge academia and industry by creating venues for interaction and mutual learning.  

Mochly-Rosen, who is George D. Smith Professor of Translational Research, writes in her book, “A Practical Guide to Drug Development in Academia: The SPARK Approach” that “in recent decades academia have focused on advancing scientific understanding through basic research and counted on the biopharma industry to translate promising discoveries into new therapeutics. Given the recent developments, however, this paradigm needs to change.”   

She noted that “pharma companies have drastically cut their research budgets and basic research staffs to decrease costs and improve short-term profits. As a result, we can expect that fewer novel drug programs will originate in the biopharma sector. Academic inventors can and should step in to fill this gap.”   

SPARK reduces the risks of drug development projects for outside companies, investors and even for federal grant agencies. Many SPARK projects were not only licensed to outside companies that would have required larger budgets, but these projects also were able to receive funding from National Institutes of Health (NIH) or Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), after generating initial data supporting their hypotheses.   

SPARK also provides useful skills, such as project management, to graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, many of whom will seek careers in industry.    

Based on the success of SPARK at Stanford and recognizing a need for similar efforts at academic institutions around the world, SPARK Global was established to support partner institutions in establishing their own SPARK programs. Key requirements are institutions with strong foundations of basic and clinical research, local highly skilled industry advisors and seed money.   

Elliman and David Schwartz, MD, chair of the Department of Medicine, attended SPARK sessions at Stanford University and established the SPARK Colorado program this year under the auspices of CU Innovations, which has a broader mandate than a traditional academic technology transfer office that mainly focuses on capturing the intellectual property generated in a university.   

CU Innovations’ services include venture development, advancing industry collaborations, business development, designing and implementing training programs, and building infrastructure for clinical validation and co-development of healthcare products.   

CU Innovations Managing Director Kimberly Muller highlighted how SPARK fits into the long-term innovation strategy on the AnschutzMedical Campus.   

“SPARK Colorado will allow CU Innovations to filter through the best ideas and teams on the campus, help them move their projects in full sail. It will build success stories and a community of entrepreneurial inventors,” Muller said. “Being part of a global network also perfectly overlaps with our vision for this campus.”    

Additional leadership to establish SPARK Colorado came from Naresh Mandava, MD, chair of ophthalmology, Richard Zane, MD, chair of emergency medicine, and David Ross, PhD, chair of pharmaceutical sciences.  

SPARK Colorado announced a call for applications in February 2018 for its inaugural class and received more than 50. There were three primary selection criteria: scope of unmet medical need, novelty of the approach, and feasibility in terms of time and financial cost to move the projects forward.   

After a rigorous selection process by external industry experts, 20 top projects were invited for a live pitch session. Of these, 11 final projects were selected to participate in the program.  Three additional regenerative medicine projects that received funding from the campus’ Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine were also admitted to the program.   


The 14 SPARK Colorado projects span biomedicine ranging from surgery, ophthalmology to oncology: 


  • Spine surgeon Evalina Burger, MD, professor of orthopedics, aims to prevent deformation in endplate architecture which is a common challenge in her field.  
  • Max Mitchell, MD, professor of surgery, is tackling a challenge cardiac surgeons face on a daily basis by developing an apical cuff implant tool to simplify cardiac surgery.  
  • Michael Glode, MD, professor emeritus of medicine in the Division of Medical Oncology, and his team are working to develop a novel treatment for bladder cancer patients.
  • Heidi Wilson, , assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the Division of Reproductive Sciences, is working on ovarian cancer, one of the deadliest types of cancer among women.  
  • PhDMelanie Joy, PharmD, PhD, associate professor at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, is developing a medical device for kidney disease indication. 
  • Jeff Olson, MD, associate professor of ophthalmology is building an intraocular device to filter out harmful proteins that can cause macular degeneration. 
  • Maria Valeria Canto-Soler, PhD, associate professor of ophthalmology is working on  stem-cell derived 3D retinal transplant for dry age related macular degeneration. 
  • Richard Johnson, MD, professor of medicine, is developing a targeted therapy for sugar and alcohol craving and liver disease. 
  • Mark Petrash, PhD, research professor and Vice Chair of Research in the Department of Ophthalmology, is developing a biologic for cataract inhibition. 
  • Martin Zamora, MD, professor of medicine and medical director of the lung transplant program, is working to build an autologous CD117+ progenitor cell therapy for enhancing success in solid organ transplantation. 
  • James Lambert, PhD, assistant research professor of pathology, is working on a breakthrough therapy for triple-negative breast cancer. 
  • Shi-Long Lu, MD, PhD, associate professor of otolaryngology is working on a saliva-based molecular test for head and neck cancer diagnosis. 
  • Surgery Professor Ernest Moore, MD, and his team are developing a tPA-challenged viscoelastometric hemostatic assay for early identification of fibrinolytic coagulopathy in trauma.  
  • Nicholas Walter, MD, assistant professor of medicine, is working on a surrogate molecular assessment of response to tuberculosis treatment.   



All these projects harness the expertise of CU faculty in the pursuit of solving a pressing healthcare problem. SPARK Colorado holds its sessions biweekly on the Anschutz Medical Campus and members of the academic and business community are invited to attend provided they are willing to exchange ideas, learn from each other and make an impact.  


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