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SPARK | REACH Program Offers Bridge to Patient Bedside for Promising Treatments

Sixth cohort for commercialization accelerator represents a variety of innovative healthcare solutions

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Written by Chris Casey on June 19, 2023
What You Need To Know

The SPARK | REACH  Program is the go-to program on campus for anyone who has promising proof-of-concept data in the lab. SPARK helps develop technologies that address unmet medical needs and will open for new applications on June 19.

In its short, five-year history, the SPARK Colorado program has created 20 startup companies, launched nearly 50 projects and invested $7.5 million in teams that are advancing biomedical discoveries into treatments for patients.

The program is operated with support from the State of Colorado Advanced Industries, the NIH and CU Innovations.The awards support University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus faculty and students who are developing innovative therapeutics, medical devices and diagnostics to address unmet medical needs.

Applications open June 19 for

next cohort

With the seventh cohort on the horizon, SPARK opens for new applications on June 19. If you have a promising new drug, medical device or diagnostic test that’s ready for development to treat patients, submit a letter of intent before Aug. 16 here. Eligible applicants will be invited to submit a full proposal and supported in preparing the full application with a bootcamp. Please see the SPARK | REACH website to learn more about the application process and ways you can get support in preparing the application.

The sixth cohort of awardees was recently announced. Their projects again represent a diversity of technologies including:

  • a system that improves cervical spine surgery;
  • a potential multiple sclerosis therapy that promotes myelin repair and functional recovery;
  • a device for intact pill delivery for patients unable to swallow;
  • a patient-specific spinal-fusion cage, reducing post-surgical complications involving endplate architecture;
  • a Slumberscope for efficient diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea;
  • an antimicrobial polymer platform that could serve as a multi-modal wound dressing for prehospital trauma and combat casualty care; and
  • a simple multiplex assay to screen multiple autoimmune diseases simultaneously in children.

Program origins

SPARK Colorado, which launched in 2018, is modeled after the Stanford University SPARK Program established in 2006 by Professor Daria Mochly-Rosen, PhD, as a cost-effective model to advance biomedical discoveries into treatments for patients.

SPARK Program highlights of previous awardees:

$7.5 million — Invested in SPARK teams

$30.4 million – Follow-on funding raised by SPARK teams

49 projects in six cohorts

12 commercialization webinars per year

65+ business mentors

20 new startup companies created

In 2019, the program was recognized by the National Institutes of Health as one of five REACH Hubs (Research, Evaluation and Commercialization Hub) across the country. This prestigious award provides the Hub with $4 million over four years to support translational projects toward product development, as well as educational initiatives. It also allows the Hub to be embedded in a national network of innovation hubs, to ensure the program is run on national gold standards.

SPARK’s seventh cohort is on the horizon as the program is open for new applications on June 19. In addition to SPARK’s open request for proposals, the program welcomes all innovation enthusiasts to participate in its educational programming.

2023 SPARK Program Awardees

Vikas Patel, MD, professor of orthopedics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine – Advanced Cervical Fixation. The project aims to address the limitations of existing anterior fusion surgery instrumentation for treating cervical spine pathology. The proposed plating system improves fixation strength, simplifies surgical technique and reduces inventory requirements, making it an attractive option for orthopedic/neuro spine surgeons.

Cristin Welle, PhD, associate professor of neurosurgery at the CU School of Medicine – Vagus Nerve Stimulation to Treat Multiple Sclerosis. The project focuses on developing a potential therapy for multiple sclerosis (MS) that promotes myelin repair and functional recovery. The proposed solution is to perform device development activities to prepare for initial clinical studies and develop a commercialization plan for the non-invasive transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation (taVNS) paired with motor tasks for MS, leveraging the team’s expertise in device development, regulatory affairs and clinical experience in treating MS patients.

Adam Green, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at the CU School of Medicine – Development of a Device for Intact Pill Delivery to Patients Unable to Swallow. The project addresses the challenge faced by individuals, including young children and adults with neuromuscular disorders, who cannot swallow pills and therefore have limited access to necessary medications. The proposed solution is a novel gastrostomy tube device that allows intact pill delivery to the stomach, fitting into standard gastrostomy incisions and enabling the administration of pills through a thin-walled sheath.

Evalina Burger-Van der Walt, MD, professor of orthopedics at the CU School of Medicine – Novelty Cages Accommodating Individual Endplate Architecture. The project focuses on reducing subsidence, a complication in spinal fusion surgery where the intervertebral body fusion devices (cages) sink into the endplates of the vertebrae, leading to misalignment and the need for revision surgery. The proposed solution involves developing a patient-specific spinal fusion cage customized to match the stiffness and geometry of the patient’s vertebral endplates, which can be obtained from CT scans.

Brian Herrmann, MD, associate professor of otolaryngology – head and neck surgery at the CU School of Medicine – Slumberscope for Efficient Obstructive Sleep Apnea Diagnosis. The project aims to address the challenges of diagnosing and treating obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a common medical condition that can have negative health impacts. The proposed solution is the refinement and pre-clinical testing of Slumberscope, an endoscopic device that can be placed in the upper airway overnight to capture anatomic locations and patterns of dynamic collapse during natural sleep, providing sleep physicians with targeted information for effective treatment planning.

Daewon Park, PhD, associate professor of bioengineering at the CU School of Medicine – Microbicidal Polymer Spray. TEGSAL, a Colorado-based company, is developing an antimicrobial polymer platform technology. The firm recently completed an NSF I-Corps cohort, which led to significant validation of commercial potential of its technology. This has led to the investigation of the applicability and impact of the technology across multiple clinical areas of interest, including as a multi-modal wound dressing for prehospital trauma and combat casualty care.

Liping Yu, MD, associate research professor of pediatrics-Barbara Davis Center at the CU School of Medicine – A Simple Multiplex Assay to Screen Multiple Autoimmune Diseases Simultaneously in Children. The project aims to address the challenges of screening for multiple autoimmune diseases, such as Type 1 diabetes, celiac disease and autoimmune thyroid disease, which affect millions of people. Existing screening methods are expensive and logistically difficult, with limited predictive value for Type 1 diabetes. The proposed solution is a novel multiplex assay that combines multiple autoantibodies for these diseases into one well, providing higher throughput, lower sample volume requirements, and lower cost compared to current methods.