Richard Duke, PhD, is taking the next step in his long career at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, joining the CU Cancer Center this July as deputy associate director of commercialization. In his new role, Duke will serve as a liaison to center-level oversight, strategic planning, and process improvement for CU Cancer Center commercialization efforts, working closely with CU Innovations and the Colorado AMC SPARK/REACH program.
The new position is a natural progression for Duke, who in 2019 helped the CU Anschutz Medical Campus obtain a $5 million Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hub (REACH) grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund product definition studies. With matching funds from the state of Colorado, the program provides funding and specialized mentoring for CU Anschutz faculty developing therapeutics, medical devices, and diagnostics to address unmet medical needs.
As deputy associate director of commercialization for the CU Cancer Center, Duke will focus the majority of his commercialization efforts on research led by CU Cancer Center members.
“What we’re looking for with the SPARK/REACH program are drug, medical device, and diagnostic technologies that are on the cusp of switching from research to development,” he says. “My particular interest is in assisting with the development of drugs, biologics, monoclonal antibodies, and cell-based therapies directed against cancer targets that have been highly validated by the investigators. The end goal is to advance the technology to the point where it could be licensed to a start-up company or to an established pharmaceutical company for further development.”
40 years and counting
Duke’s career at the CU School of Medicine spans more than 40 years. He started in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology in 1981, then moved to the CU Cancer Center, where he started the tumor immunology core facility. While running the core, he became interested in commercialization, spinning off a biotech company called GlobeImmune in 1996 based on immunotherapy research he conducted with fellow cancer center members Don Bellgrau and Alex Franzusoff.
Other companies followed with other cancer center members, as did the nonprofit Colorado Institute for Drug Device and Diagnostic Development, which Duke founded in 2009 to fund early-stage medical companies. His efforts in starting companies was recognized with the 2020 Tibbets Award from the Small Business Administration.
He returned to the CU School of Medicine in 2019 to be the principal investigator on the REACH grant. It’s all experience he will draw on in his new role at the CU Cancer Center, where he says the quality of the research is already extremely high. Since the REACH grant became operational in July 2020, the program has funded 26 projects, eight involving cancer drugs, and incentivized the creation of 10 new companies,five5 of which are focused on treating cancer. Four of the cancer companies have raised $10 million in SBIR/STTR grants, and the fifth is looking to close on a first round of venture capital investment. Each of these companies will be working toward regulated manufacturing of their products in 2023 in anticipation of clinical trials that could begin in 2024.
“Faculty want to be part of the cancer center because they want to do something that ultimately helps patients,” he says. “We’re hoping to provide researchers with the opportunity to move their inventions into the clinic, but most of them have never done that before. In addition to funding, they need a lot of assistance, and that’s what we provide.”
Other duties for Duke in his new role include developing technology transfer and research commercialization resources, pitch events, and mentorship programs for aspiring innovators; providing mentorship and education related to product development and commercialization; providing consultation and help with drafting competitive grant applications, specifically SBIR and STTR applications; and aiding researchers in their communication with federal partners including the Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid.
For Duke, his new role is a step up both personally and professionally.
“I've been involved in taking nine products into the clinic thus far, and on all of them, except for one, I was involved as an inventor,” he says. “Unfortunately, none of them have been approved to date, so I’m still trying to find the elusive number 10, 11, 12, etc. This is my way to give back to the CU Cancer Center and to participate in the development of new therapies for patients. I’m truly excited about the opportunity. It’s something I’ve been trying to do since joining the cancer center 30 years ago.”