Kristina Thiel, Ph.D., is a researcher who works alongside three faculty members and scientists at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. About two years ago, the four colleagues sat around a conference room talking about their idea for advancing cancer treatment. “One of us said, ‘We should form a company,” Thiel recalls. “It just blossomed from there.”
Immortagen formed in 2014 with a mission to move cancer treatment from a one-size-fits-all approach to truly personalized care based on a tumor’s molecular composition.
Thiel explains: “We are in the age of big data; we can analyze each patient’s tumor at a molecular level. The challenge is that every tumor can have up to 700 genetic defects, yet not all are actively driving the cancer. How does an oncologist know on which defect to base the treatment?
“Immortagen is developing software programs that use artificial intelligence to rank mutations in their order of influence on the disease. That ranking informs oncologists and pharmaceutical companies in treating patients and developing drugs,” she says. Immortagen also helps determine the risk of cancer recurrence.
Pappajohn Center Venture School Helps Bring Academic Discoveries to Market
“Without the Pappajohn Center, we probably would still be sitting in that conference room discussing our idea,” Thiel says, adding that faculty- and staff-generated ideas haven’t always had a mechanism for being taken to market.
“Today there is an entrepreneurial culture at University of Iowa, and more emphasis on commercializing academic discoveries,” she says.
Because “a team of scientists needed a lot of help to take a cool science idea and turn it into a commercial product,” Thiel and her partners reached out to the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.
Their first step was to enroll in Venture School, a program designed to accelerate the startup process while increasing a new business’s chance for success. The Pappajohn Center’s Venture School has grown to include three components: a six- to seven-week program for entrepreneurs; an eight-week accelerator program for students; and the Faculty Innovators Program, a shortened, four-week version focused on the tech transfer process for university faculty and staff.
“That first day of Venture School they called us ‘entrepreneurs.’ I thought, ‘No, I’m a cancer researcher,” Thiel says. “But there are actually a lot of parallels. Both require having a vision. Both require doing something that no one else is doing. Both require having a real passion to make a change.”
Thiel speaks glowingly about the support and resources that were made available to her team through Venture School and the Pappajohn Center: “We had second-to-none instruction. We met industry experts who helped us develop a comprehensive business plan. We had access to industry mentors, investment advisors and many others.”
These connections helped the partners secure funding support from the University of Iowa Research Foundation, as well as a grant from the state of Iowa’s Economic Development Authority (IEDA).
The scientists also participated in elevator pitch competitions, which yielded a financial award to further help fund their new venture.
In the fall of 2015, they entered the John Pappajohn Iowa Entrepreneurial Venture Competition, in which they presented their business plan to business leaders and Pappajohn Center staff. Immortagen team placed third in the competition, which earned them another $10,000 financial award.
Thiel, who came to Iowa in 2007 from Alabama, adds, “Before I knew John Pappajohn as an entrepreneur, I knew him as a philanthropist. I see his name on so many buildings on the medical campus here. Now I know him for creating and continuing to foster the entrepreneurial community in Iowa. He’s transformed so many lives.”
Backing Accelerates Product Introductions
The education, business and industry connections, and financial backing facilitated by the Pappajohn Center put momentum behind the company’s development and growth. Immortagen has already hired three employees, including president and CEO Kurt Heiar, and is on the brink its first product launch.
“Our first product will help predict the risk of relapse for uterine cancer patients. This is first because there are no similar tests on the market for this cancer,” Thiel says.
As Immortagen establishes more industry partnerships, the founders anticipate expanding Immortagen to include other types of cancers. “We’re trying to be very nimble in our product development to fit the needs of the marketplace and the cancer community,” she says.
A Broadened Perspective
“I probably still identify myself as a researcher first and foremost, but I am embracing being an entrepreneur. (The John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center) has given me a broader vision for how, as researchers and scientists, we can make a difference,” Thiel says.
“Definitely there is an entrepreneurial culture at University of Iowa, and more emphasis on commercializing academic discoveries. … At the end of the day, Immortagen’s winners are cancer patients.” -- Kristina Thiel, Ph.D., Researcher at University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine and co-founder of Immortagen.