UMass Medical School seeks to bolster profits from science

Brendan O’Leary is UMass Medical School’s head of innovation.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Brendan O’Leary is UMass Medical School’s head of innovation.

WORCESTER — Whether it’s a potential cure for melanoma derived from studying zebrafish or a new gene therapy to revolutionize treatment for chronic diseases, these discoveries cannot help anyone if they never make it out of the laboratory.

To help bridge that gap, University of Massachusetts Medical School has hired a longtime venture capitalist to help catapult such advances out of the lab and into the commercial world.

Brendan O’Leary’s goal is to make science useful, and to bring more revenue and research funding to the medical school in an era of shrinking federal funding.


Medical School chancellor Michael Collins said he created the new position because he wanted someone focused entirely on interesting the rest of the world in science coming out of the medical school. He wanted someone who understands not only science but the business world, and he found both in O’Leary.

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“My goal is to have a much better collaboration of thought around how we can take great science and turn it into moieties that will actually help patients into the future,” said Collins, who took over in 2008.

Scientists may lack training in marketing and find it daunting to tout their research to entrepreneurs or companies that can take it to the next step, such as clinical trials. As traditional systems for funding and disseminating research change, more focus is placed on science that is profitable as well as useful.

O’Leary joined UMass in December after 12 years at Needham-based Prism Venture Management and prior work in biotech. He also has a doctorate in organic chemistry from MIT.

In his new role, O’Leary has one foot in the lab — where scientists appreciate his ability to speak their lingo — and one foot in Kendall Square, where he works his connections and keeps tabs on what entrepreneurs want.


Already, UMass Medical School, located in Worcester, is successful in selling its technology. It ranks second in the state, third in New England, and 15th in the country for generating licensing fees, according to the Association of University Technology Managers. The school raised $33 million last year in licensing fees, according to UMass.

But O’Leary wants to boost the school’s stature even higher. He calls the medical school a “hidden gem” and said he had no idea about research happening there until a recruiter contacted him about the job.

Indeed, UMass Medical scientists Craig Mello and Andrew Fire from the medical school won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their 2006 discoveries related to RNA interference, a milestone that drew international attention to the school.

O’Leary is making his way through about 300 scientists he thinks have potentially marketable research (there are 1,300 faculty at the medical school, about half of whom do research) and said so far he has found 100 promising projects.

“There’s a huge knowledge gap about how to get from A to B and also a funding gap,” O’Leary said.


One of the scientists O’Leary works with is Craig Ceol, whose team studies zebrafish to develop what they think could become a cure for melanoma. The fish are good for this research because the cancer is externally visible and scientists can see single cells in live fish.

But the promising studies on hundreds of the glittering fish, some with black blobs of cancer injected for research, are still far from yielding a drug for humans.

“It’s pretty daunting,” Ceol said of the process of moving discoveries toward clinical trials and commercialization.

O’Leary is also working with Christian Mueller, who is researching a gene therapy for people with Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic disorder that can cause lung and liver disease. Mueller said he, like many scientists, didn’t have formal training in marketing research — it’s learn as you go.

“It was kind of a roadblock,” said Mueller, who was preparing on a recent day to present his research to entrepreneurs coming to campus.

Another of O’Leary’s goals is to bring in more research funding dollars from private companies. The medical school saw $245 million research dollars last year, including $10 million from private companies. By comparison, Harvard Medical School last year spent $265 million on externally funded research.

Other UMass campuses also do research, and the system as a whole spent $603 million in fiscal year 2014 on research and development. By comparison, MIT that year spent $678 million on research, 16 percent of which was funded by private companies.

Funding from the National Institutes of Health over the past five years has shrunk nationwide and at UMass, as have total research dollars at the school.

The Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research, which tracks the amount of National Institutes of Health funding that medical schools receive, ranked UMass 37th nationwide out of 139 in 2014, below Harvard but above Boston University and Tufts University.

O’Leary’s official title is vice chancellor for innovation and business development, and he earns $375,000 a year, making him the 14th-highest-compensated UMass employee system-wide. He makes more than the chancellors at UMass Lowell, Dartmouth, and Boston.

UMass defended his salary as “carefully evaluated” and competitive to attract top talent. Most of the school’s funding comes not from taxpayer dollars but contracts, licensing revenue, and other sources.

Harvard Medical School, MIT, and other research universities also have employees who connect scientific discoveries with the business world and their strategies have changed as trends in what is known as technology transfer has evolved, said MIT provost Martin Schmidt.

Twenty years ago companies hired graduates who worked at internal research and development departments, Schmidt said. Now graduates advance their ideas through startups, and companies locate near universities and startups to absorb the technology.

Universities often help connect bigger companies and startups that are developing new technology, he said. Schools can benefit financially through licensing or equity arrangements.

“Things are evolving over the decades and universities are having to evolve,” Schmidt said.

Contact Laura Krantz at Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.