sciVelo translating careers: Team spotlight on Andrew Brown, PhD and Kathrin Gassei, PhD

Andrew and Kathrin during their weekly meeting at sciVelo.

Andrew and Kathrin during their weekly meeting at sciVelo.

Creating a culture of leadership in translational science and commercial translation

Andrew Brown, PhD and Kathrin Gassei, PhD are part of sciVelo’s founding team. Their paths first intersected at bioStratica, a translational science consultancy group that later spawned sciVelo at the University of Pittsburgh. At sciVelo, Andrew and Kathrin have worked across seven life sciences thematic areas to help build an academic commercial translation culture and architecture across Pitt’s six schools of the Health Sciences. In addition to Health Sciences translation, the sciVelo model is focused on developing and advancing the careers of Pitt trainees, early-career scientists, and clinicians. Andrew and Kathrin have mentored dozens of sciVelo team members resulting in the translation of those careers into exceptional positions both within and outside of Pitt.

As sciVelo approached its 3rd year anniversary in the spring of 2019, Andrew and Kathrin were promoted to assistant directors of sciVelo. They both agree that the main reason behind their success and commitment to sciVelo has been sciVelo’s unique and dynamic team culture, combined with the excitement and enthusiasm for filling an important commercial translation gap on campus – that being “filling the funnel” of early-stage translational research projects. As the Assistant Director of Commercial Translation Programs at sciVelo, Andrew’s main responsibilities are to lead team members across sciVelo’s thematic areas.
“What sciVelo offers, which is hard to get somewhere else on campus, is a different type of leadership experience. The experience you gain at sciVelo involves building and leading diverse teams with clinicians and researchers to pitch for half-a-million-dollar (or more) translational research projects and developing strategies to complete those projects with different end-goals than a typical academic research project. This teaches a mix of skills that really differentiate sciVelo commercial translation architects and associates when they are securing their next job whether inside or outside of academia.”

Andrew Brown, PhD, Assistant Director of Commercial Translation Programs at sciVelo.

Andrew, himself also benefited from these leadership skills that he developed at sciVelo. Andrew’s PhD research showed early signs of commercial translation potential. His research resulted in the development of a magnesium polymer biomaterial platform for tissue regeneration. Andrew explains that when he decided to pursue commercial translation of his technology in 2011, it was not clear where to go for resources at Pitt: “I did not know who to consult about when to file an invention disclosure or a patent application, how to do an intellectual property (IP) landscape assessment or what to actually communicate to make the case for the commercialization of my research.”

Andrew took his first entrepreneurial and commercialization training through the Office of Enterprises Development (now part of the Innovation Institute) at Pitt (the Benchtop to Bedside courses) and received his first commercialization-oriented funding through the First Gear Program (also part of the Innovation Institute). Since then, Andrew has raised $350,000 in research and commercial translation funding from various resources on and off campus. His technology has since been optioned (in 2019) from the University into a newly formed licensed spin-out company, Emergence Dental, where activities are currently focused on non-dilutive fundraising. Andrew also serves as a Clinical Assistant Professor at the Department of Periodontics and Preventative Medicine, University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine.
Kathrin, as the Assistant Director of Commercial Translation Architecture at sciVelo, manages early-stage translational science projects funded through the Center for Commercial Applications of Healthcare Data (CCA), and helps investigators to attract follow-up funding for further clinical validation and translation. Outside of sciVelo, Kathrin works as biologist at Immunetrics, a life science software company and Pitt spin-off located in the South Side. During her time at sciVelo, Kathrin gained experience in strategic planning, tactical project management, and working with cross-disciplinary teams. She particularly values sharing her knowledge about the many resources that Pitt has to offer, both on and off campus, and how to tap into those resources to accomplish the commercial translation goals of an investigator team, career goals of a junior team member, or the ambitious programmatic goals the sciVelo team sets.
“I am fascinated by the great ideas the [Pitt] faculty have and I enjoy working on a problem, narrowing it down, and figuring out what the differentiating factor is compared to other solutions that exist. After projects get funded, I also enjoy going through the project phase, helping the team stay on track and to think about their commercialization pathway in collaboration with the Innovation Institute’s commercialization team of EIRs and licensing managers.”

Kathrin Gassei, PhD, Assistant Director of Commercial Translation Architecture at sciVelo.

The process of getting ready to pitch for a translational science project involves putting an early-stage research proposal together where sciVelo helps the project team with identifying the project goals and an experimental plan directed towards a commercial product. If the project teams are successful in meeting those deliverables, investigators who receive early research funding usually continue working with the sciVelo team throughout their translational science journey. One of the great examples of the outcomes of these collaborations between sciVelo, the Innovation Institute’s commercial team, and Pitt investigators has been Tumor Driver Identification (TDI), which received substantial follow-on funding from the UPMC Immune Transplant and Therapy Center (ITTC) to perform clinical studies for validation of its ability to predict response to immunotherapy in melanoma patients.
TDI is one the first projects that was funded from the CCA. The sciVelo team, led by Kathrin, connected the investigators with the right people on campus, and helped to lead the translational science critical path. With sciVelo’s support and guidance, after talking to some of the most recognized oncologists at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, the TDI team identified melanoma as the first use case. In addition, they started collaborating with Hillman’s Research Core and using their repository of samples from melanoma patients treated with immunotherapy to test their algorithm for clinical validation studies.
“There are a lot of resources at Pitt, through the Office of Research, Innovation Institute, Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) and the Office of Economic Partnerships, and pilot grants offered through different departmental programs. sciVelo can direct the investigators towards the right programs and the right people at the right time to get translational science funding and to establish collaborations. Having this type of support helps investigator project teams get to where they want to be faster instead of bouncing around different resources. It helps them know that there is team of people at sciVelo, who they can work with and talk to when they need help.” says Kathrin.

“At the end, we get the investigators to be very efficient, developing a translational plan ahead of time and rapidly executing on that plan or changing directions when necessary.” Andrew adds.

While contributing to advancing the translational research landscape and the commercial translation culture at Pitt, sciVelo will also continue to promote careers of early-career scientists, such as Andrew and Kathrin, by providing them with opportunities for professional growth and leadership.
“We created sciVelo in 2016 to accelerate translational research towards commercialization. Building and enabling a team of leaders – who take risks and remain undeterred on the goals – was the most important part. Andrew and Kathrin have formed exceptional leadership skills over the years in a complex environment and those who are mentored by them are also sure to succeed.”

Donald P. Taylor, PhD, MBA, CLP, Founder and Executive Director of sciVelo.

Author/Photographer: Ceren Tuzmen, PhD