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Innovation Fellows Take Root in Industry

Innovation Fellows Program

Albert Einstein once said, “The only source of knowledge is experience.” While that may be overstating the case just a bit, the message certainly rings true for the academic fellows and industry partners who have participated in the Partners Innovation Fellows Program thus far.

The program was launched by Partners HealthCare Innovation in 2017 to enable personnel exchanges between staff at Partners hospitals and participating industry members from the biopharmaceutical, device, venture capital, digital health and consulting industries.

Innovation Fellow opportunities are designed to bring knowledge and insights from academia to industry and vice versa through hands-on skill development experiences.

Seema Basu, PhD, and Cary Mazzone from the Partners Innovation team manage the day-to-day operations of the program and work to match interested fellows with host organizations from industry, including Biogen and Boston Pharmaceutical among others. The goal is to create a win-win for both sides.

Industry hosts gain access to a medical subject matter expert who can bring new methods of thinking and problem-solving to their teams. In return, academic fellows can gain valuable experience in drug development, regulatory filings, commercialization and translational medicine while learning more about the daily workings of industry.

Recognizing that each Fellow Project has a unique set of needs, flexibility was built into the program from the start, Basu says. “We tried to keep few fixed elements and a lot of flexibility so that it allows for agility, scale and customization to fit the right career and the right Fellow.”

Bridging the Knowledge Gap

The Innovation Fellows Program was inspired by other successful programs developed at Partners’ hospitals and also those used by industry.

Nazem Atassi, MD, the Associate Director of the Neurological Clinical Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, participated in a Fellowship at Biogen six years ago that helped to establish the framework for the Fellows Program.

Now a program mentor for Innovation Fellows, Atassi says that firsthand exposure to industry helps to bridge a crucial gap in academic education and training. “At no point during medical school or clinical training do people learn about drug development,” he explains. “This can be a big barrier to working with industry.”

“Understanding how people in industry think about drug development can guide a lot of joint projects between academia and industry—knowing how the system works in order to get a project approved, who the decision-makers are, how they evaluate things, which track to go through.”

“It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do projects in academia to understand the fundamental biology of disease that, for now at least, is unrelated to any specific drug development program,” Atassi adds. “But when it comes to working with industry, understanding their scientific objectives will go a long way.”

The Fellows Perspective

“I think the Innovation Fellows Program is important and valuable because it is one of the few programs that bridges industry and academics,” says Katherine Garlo, MD, who recently finished a Fellow Project at Boston Pharmaceuticals and who will soon join Alexion as Associate Director of Clinical Development.

Dr. Garlo applied for the program while training as a nephrology fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She wanted to learn more about conducting randomized control trials, translational medicine, inclusion/exclusion criteria and drug design.

In addition to the firsthand scientific experience, her Fellow Project also helped Garlo define her career path. “I learned a lot about myself, my strengths, where I find the most fulfillment and the different styles of communication. The two worlds are really pretty different, and I learned a little bit about how to work between them.”

The Industry Perspective

The Fellow experience is also rewarding for host companies.  “As a small biotech, we’re always looking for ways to network with the scientific and clinical community within Boston and Cambridge,” says Peter Ho, MD, PhD, Chief Medical Officer of Boston Pharmaceuticals.

“While we have a lot of in-house medical expertise, we’ll never be the large hospital teaching facility that is a Mass General or a Brigham and Women’s,” Ho says. “The Fellows Program is a great way for us to get additional expertise in disease areas or specialties that aren’t within our group.”

Growing the Program

Now that the basics of the program have been established, Basu and Mazzone are working to increase its scale and scope by connecting with more industry hosts.

They are also looking to build out the “Inbound” aspect of the program, which will give industry staff an opportunity to embed in a research lab or center within Partners HealthCare and learn about research from an academic perspective.

In its third year, the program is showing strong signs of engagement and access across all sectors, resulting in additional support and allocation of resources to ensure long term results that meet program objectives.

“Partners HealthCare values this program as a resource and is committed to developing and sustaining these meaningful exchange opportunities,” says Anne Klibanski, MD, Chief Academic Officer of Partners HealthCare.

Fellows who participate in the program may choose careers in industry or in academia. If they do stay in industry, the hope is that they will retain their connections to PHS. If they return to academia, the insights they gain should be helpful in future collaborations.