Student group helps researchers bring their therapies to market.
In the exploding world of health care technology, entrepreneurship, and venture capital, Warren Alpert medical students are helping to fill the gap between preliminary research and product design.
The Brown Medical Venture Group (BMVG) has two core missions: to educate students about health innovation and to work with companies and investors to help them identify and validate their ideas, says Anshul Parulkar MD’18, who cofounded the group in 2016.
“I wanted to find a way to allow medical students to get real-world education in the innovation process that they weren’t getting in the curriculum,” he says.
“Taking things we’ve learned in class and seeing how this sort of insight can be helpful in developing real-world therapeutics and therapies is really great,” cofounder Jonathan Vu ’15 MD’20 says.
The BMVG works with a variety of clients, ranging from local venture capitalists trying to build out their portfolios to health care entrepreneurs who want to validate their products. That means students spend a lot of time drawing upon their curriculum, clinical experiences, and research skills.
“In medicine, there are a bunch of pain points, but you don’t know what they are until you see them or you treat a patient. That sort of clinical experience gives you intuition whether something is valuable or not,” Vu says. Companies often lack this experience, which can lead to a less-than-ideal, ineffective product. The BMVG can help change that.
“Medical students are hungry to take on these challenges,” Peter Mattson MD’20 says. By providing the opportunity to develop a unique set of skills directly applicable to what students are learning, the group has fostered a lot of enthusiasm, he says.
The group began by partnering with administrators, researchers, and local investors and entrepreneurial ventures; now word of mouth is bringing in more clients. One recent project was a collaboration with Jack A. Elias, MD, senior vice president for health affairs and dean of medicine and biological sciences.
“I met the Brown Medical Venture Group in my activities as dean, where they were bringing new ideas to the Medical School,” Elias says. “I realized that they might help with some of the translational research in my laboratory. They were immensely helpful in augmenting our understanding of a small molecule inhibitor of an enzyme called chitotriosidase that we discovered was also an inhibitor of tissue fibrosis. Their work helped us position the inhibitor as a therapeutic. Working with them was a lot of fun for me and, I hope, for them as well.”
Each project looks different, based on the needs of the client. For a recent consult on an agricultural antibiotic, they conducted an intensive research process. “We looked at patent information and toxicology reports to come up with a consult for commercial viability,” Parulkar says. “It involved diving deep into the literature, going all the way back to the 1960s to review commercial viability for the new drug.” The project helped him gain a meaningful new perspective when evaluating clinical research, a powerful tool for a physician.
Being a part of the group is a “form of empowerment for medical students,” Vu says. “It’s a way to give some really smart people a skill set that allows them to change the world in the way they see fit.”
The translational nature of the BMVG’s work is really what sets them apart, Nathan Pertsch MD’20 adds. “We’re positioned at that last step of translational medicine: helping to move great ideas from the research laboratory into clinical practice,” he says.
“The role of the physician is changing,” Vu says. “The world is moving toward a broader definition of health care. And we’re here to bridge that gap.”