There is a pill in the works that could treat a common and often severe set of inflammatory bowel diseases.
The promising therapy and many more for a host of troubling and deadly diseases are now much more likely to make it to market because of a big bet by the majority owner of the Baltimore Ravens, Steve Bisciotti.
The Stephen and Renee Bisciotti Foundation has put up $100 million for a new Baltimore-based nonprofit called Blackbird that will help shepherd five to 10 promising therapies a year from local university labs into local startup companies.
“Before Blackbird, more often than not, once investors got involved, discoveries made in Baltimore were moved out of Baltimore,” said Barbara Slusher, a Johns Hopkins University professor who is developing the inflammatory disease drug. “That is, if they were commercialized.”
After getting to know the research landscape over the past few months, Blackbird officials have decided to focus on treatments for inflammatory disease, neurological disorders and cancers. They have selected their first half-dozen discoveries from Johns Hopkins University; the University of Maryland, Baltimore; and the Lieber Institute for Brain Development, a Hopkins-affiliated nonprofit research organization.
Each project will get scientific and business guidance plus funding for a proper pitch to investors over 12 to 24 months. The goal is making it through the yearslong, costly and arduous journey that involves human trials and federal approvals to the market.
Hopkins and Maryland already have such incubators near their medical campuses to commercialize therapeutic and diagnostic discoveries and medical devices. Those efforts are growing.
The Blackbird investment will add a crucial layer of funding plus guidance from people who have done this before, said Matt Tremblay, CEO and founding member of the board since Blackbird was created in January.
He said researchers, especially those involved in the early, fundamental scientific work in the lab, don’t always know how to get patents, form a company, raise capital and see therapies through regulatory approvals. They are more accustomed to handing off their technologies, often to out-of-town pharmaceutical companies.
They still want to see their discoveries become real-life treatments for patients, and they often also want to stay involved in the process, said Tremblay, the former chief operating officer of the Scripps Research Institute and its drug discovery division, Calibr.
There is far less control when discoveries leave town for more established commercial biotech cities such as Boston, he said. Other companies could develop them or shelve them despite the potential.
“This means the companies stay in Baltimore, the Ph.D.s from local labs stay here and others from the management side come to Baltimore,” Tremblay said.
There are no promises with this work, he said. But he and others here see the potential for an economic development bonanza, with hundreds of high-level and well-paying science jobs and investments over time.
That includes Pothik Chatterjee, executive vice president and chief economic officer for the Greater Baltimore Committee. He said the region has the elements for a strong commercial biotech industry: two universities that have long been top recipients of federal research dollars, and federal agencies including the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration down the road.
The region recently was named a federal tech hub by the U.S. Department of Commerce, meaning it can compete for millions of extra dollars meant to advance artificial intelligence and biotech projects.
“What we have been missing in our region is growth-stage funding to help retain our biotech startups and talent here,” he said. “Blackbird Labs comes at a crucial time, providing that growth-stage capital to help startups scale and retain the economic benefits of thriving biotech companies and jobs in our hub.”
This is a central goal of the Bisciotti family.
The family is prepared to invest funds beyond the $100 million incubator money. When the startups advance through the process and begin to raise more money, the Bisciottis plan to put up more capital.
“Baltimore is a city where great people do great things — we want to help build a thriving technology ecosystem on that strong foundation,” Steve Bisciotti said in a statement.
Slusher said she wants to see the Ph.D. students in her lab stay in Baltimore and continue their work.
The inflammatory drug from Slusher’s lab has worked well in animal trials, and with $1 million in initial Blackbird funding to “fill some holes” ahead of pitching investors, it has more of a shot of becoming a treatment for people suffering from ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
The diseases come with inflammation in the digestive tract that can be uncomfortable and cause bleeding, diarrhea and debilitating abdominal pain. Sometimes there can be life-threatening complications.
Other Blackbird projects include a schizophrenia treatment and an mRNA system (like the kind used for COVID-19 vaccines) that can be adapted to deliver treatments for multiple diseases.
Blackbird plans to coordinate with programs already in place at the research institutions, including another just-announced hub at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. It’s an NIH-designated Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hub and will provide millions of dollars at a stage before Blackbird would step in.
The hub will draw in more universities, including the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Morgan State University, and complement Blackbird efforts by funding early-stage research and training a new crop of researchers, said Dr. Jason Rose, associate dean of innovation and physician science development in Maryland’s School of Medicine and principal investigator of the REACH grant.
“We don’t know what dies on the vine, a technology somewhere that was a great idea but didn’t get that initial push to go the commercialization route,” Rose said. “With all of this, we get more shots on the goal.”