President Michael Rao, Ph.D., announced the Health Innovation Consortium on Thursday during the State of the University Address.
President Michael Rao, Ph.D., announced the Health Innovation Consortium on Thursday during the State of the University Address. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

VCU launches new initiative to bring health innovations to market

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Virginia Commonwealth University has launched a three-year, $7 million initiative to support the development of new innovations in health care, VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., announced Thursday in his State of the University Address.

The Health Innovation Consortium will leverage VCU faculty research, talented students and VCU Health in partnership with Richmond’s entrepreneurial ecosystem to support innovations that solve vexing problems in health care, thereby improving health and helping to put Richmond on the map as a hub for health care innovation.

“This consortium will allow students or faculty who have an idea to innovate health care to move seamlessly from concept to commercial viability to mature startup,” Rao said. “This can only happen at VCU, because we are the only comprehensive public research university with a nationally prominent medical center, an institution-wide commitment to human health, a remarkably entrepreneurial student body, and a history of innovation at every level. We also have the benefit of being in a city with a strong, collaborative innovation ecosystem.”

In support of the initiative, VCU Health will invest $2.5 million per year over the next three years. That investment will fund operations, as well as support a pre-seed fund and a seed fund that will help bring the innovations to market and potentially launch startup companies.

“Our support of the Health Innovation Consortium is an investment of possibility,” said Marsha D. Rappley, M.D., CEO of VCU Health System and senior vice president of VCU Health Sciences. “When you pair passion with brilliance, life-changing innovation happens. VCU is here to serve the people of the commonwealth and beyond, and with the consortium we will be able to do that in ways that were once unimaginable.” 

The consortium will be administered by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation with consortium members to include the da Vinci Center, a collaboration of VCU’s schools of the Arts and Business, and colleges of Engineering and Humanities and Sciences that advances student innovation and entrepreneurship through cross-disciplinary collaboration; VCU Ventures, an office that supports faculty and staff startup companies; and the VCU School of Medicine.

“VCU is focused on implementing a 21st-century approach to research, innovation and health care. While launched by VCU, the HIC initiative is far from insular as it will incorporate both the local ecosystem and critical partners beyond its campus,” said P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., VCU’s newly appointed vice president for research and innovation. “Creating a testing ground for health innovation in Richmond will support our overall research enterprise and offer unique opportunities for our entrepreneurial faculty, staff, trainees and students.”

The Health Innovation Consortium is about improving health care, first and foremost, he said.

“We do that by curating a pipeline of health care innovation and leveraging end users and subject-matter experts that can provide valuable feedback and insights during the discovery and validation process, something that can be incredibly difficult to do in the health care space,” he said. “The HIC demonstrates VCU’s overall commitment to improving health care through research and discovery and is reflective of the evolution of our innovation economy.”

As part of the initiative, the consortium has launched an online portal where ideas for new innovations can be submitted.

A VCU clinician might submit a concept to the portal saying, “I have a problem, I want it solved,” and the consortium might potentially assign a team of da Vinci students to develop ideas. A faculty inventor might submit to the portal saying, “I’ve invented a prototype that I think has potential,” and the consortium could help to test its market viability. Or a startup company might submit a product or service that’s ready for testing, and the consortium could facilitate connections within VCU Health.

“First, people submit their ideas to the portal. Then, behind the scenes, we look at submissions and assess their stage of development. After that, we leverage our partners, such as VCU Health, which is an end user — the eventual customer  to provide feedback on the potential of the innovation,” said Nicky Monk, director of VCU Ventures. “This allows us to rank opportunities and allocate resources.”

In response to submissions to the portal, the consortium can form teams, facilitate testing and connect the innovator with potential end users. It can also place innovators in acceleration and other programs aimed at bringing innovations to the market. This process will ultimately feed into the pre-seed and seed funds, which will be supported by Activation Capital, a nonprofit organization that advances promising innovations and entrepreneurs. The funds will be available to all health technology startups, not just those formed around VCU technologies.

“Through the early-stage investment funding, VCU Health is stepping up to support the innovators and entrepreneurs working tirelessly to improve the outcomes of human health, and elevating the economies of the Richmond region and the commonwealth,” said Carrie Roth, president and CEO of Activation Capital. “This funding will provide the foundation for more significant capital opportunities and support innovation and entrepreneurship in the commonwealth.”

The initiative sets VCU apart, Monk said, because the university is approaching this challenge holistically.

 “We’re looking to develop a health care testing bed that includes multiple partners focused on supporting innovation,” she said. “We can bring in the end users, industry partners, subject-matter experts, validation and acceleration programs, and seed funding  all to support innovation and make Richmond a national hub for health care.”

The consortium is possible at VCU because of the university’s culture of collaboration and collegiality, said Garret Westlake, Ph.D., executive director of the da Vinci Center.

“VCU is engaging students in real-world experiences alongside faculty, researchers and health care providers to improve global health outcomes,” he said. “The opportunity for students of all academic backgrounds and levels to be actively engaged in real-world solutions for improving health outcomes is a significant step for VCU as a premier public urban research university.”