Allison Gallucci could see herself working in a biotech business after completing her doctorate in Virginia Tech’s Translational Biology, Medicine and Health program, but being an entrepreneur? That didn’t seem like her.

But in 2020, Gallucci joined the annual Virginia Tech Health Sciences and Technology Commercialization Fellows Program. The program connects students and researchers at the university with mentors who guide them through identifying and researching a commercial idea, determining its value and market potential and pitching the findings to a panel of entrepreneurs.

“I thought I would learn more about what it’s like to be an industry player, and I came out of it with a much deeper understanding,” said Gallucci, who will defend her doctoral dissertation this spring on her project in the laboratory of Susan Campbell. “I never considered myself an entrepreneur, I never put that in my 10-year plan, but it’s something I’m heavily considering now and excited about.”

Developing that entrepreneurial lens in up-and-coming scientists is the goal of the Commercialization Fellows Program, now beginning its fourth year.

Applications for the new program cohort are open, and due online by 5 p.m. on March 12. Graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and research assistants and associates from across Virginia Tech who conduct health sciences and technology-related research are eligible. Applicants aren’t required to have a commercial idea to apply. Approval from their supervisor is a must.

The program, which will be conducted virtually this year, runs from March through December, with a limit of four hours of work per week, with the exception of boot camp training in April. The program is closely connected to the Roanoke-based Regional Acceleration and Mentoring Program (RAMP) in residence program for high-potential start-up businesses. Fellows participate in the same boot camp training as individuals from RAMP accelerator companies. The Spring RAMP cohort will be the first one dedicated to health and life science startups, a sign of the region’s commitment to the sector.

“Important scientific discoveries don’t achieve their full impact until they leave the lab, reach the outside world and begin to help people. The Commercialization Fellows Program teaches emerging scientists how to deliver their research to the marketplace and to people who will benefit from it,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “By connecting scientists with entrepreneurs, investors, and other scientists who know what that process looks like, the fellows learn to develop their ideas with the steps toward commercialization in mind.”

This year, the program received additional support from Eddie Amos, a Virginia Tech alumnus, veteran software engineering executive, GO Virginia council member for the Roanoke and New River valleys region and a long-time university supporter.

To date, a dozen fellows have benefited from the program.

"Commercialization projects are about how your discovery can impact the world,” said Maruf Hoque, a graduate student in the Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health program and a 2020 Commercialization Fellow who works in the laboratory of John Chappell at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. His work in the program focused on a diagnostic tool using a protein in the microcirculatory system as a marker to detect kidney cancer. “The best parts of the fellowship were the deep-dive that we took to see how the work from our research labs could translate to intellectual property for a company, and realizing that there's a tight-knit community in health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech and at RAMP that's willing to support our endeavors.”

Gallucci’s idea was a CRISPR gene-editing kit for microbiome alteration in mouse models – something what would have made her own doctoral research on epilepsy easier, she said.

Ryan King, a postdoctoral associate in Scott Johnstone’s lab at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, was in the first cohort of Commercialization Fellows as a graduate student. His idea for a web-based matching platform for postdoctoral associates and job opportunities never got off the ground, because mentors didn’t see a market for it in 2018.

But the program changed the way he thinks about his work.

“When I hear people complain about something, I write it down,” King said. “And if enough people complain about it, somebody needs to start a company to fix it.”

He’s since filed for two intellectual property patents for different ideas and now believes that, in the midst of the pandemic when the in-person networking opportunities that fuel job searches are impossible, his original idea would have taken off.

If you have questions about the Commercialization Fellows Program, contact Rob Gibson or Hal Irvin.

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