MIT Faculty Founder Initiative announces finalists for second competition

The MIT Faculty Founder Initiative has announced 12 finalists for the 2023-24 MIT-Royalty Pharma Prize Competition. The competition, which is supported by Royalty Pharma, aims to support female faculty entrepreneurs in biotechnology and provide them with resources to help take their ideas to commercialization. 

“We are building a playbook to get inventions out of the lab towards impacting patients by connecting female faculty to the innovation ecosystem and creating a community of peers,” says Sangeeta Bhatia, the John J. and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), and faculty director of the MIT Faculty Founder Initiative.

Throughout the academic year, finalists for the prize competition will receive support through a number of events, workshops, and programs. These activities focus on topics ranging from executive education classes in entrepreneurship to intellectual property and fundraising strategy. Participants also have access to over 50 best-in-class executives, investors, and advisors who have volunteered to provide mentorship and guidance to the finalists as they further develop their startup ideas.

The 2023-24 MIT Faculty Founder Initiative finalists are (top row, left to right) Anne Carpenter, Kareen Coulombe, Betar Gallant, and Carolina Haass-Koffler; (middle row, left to right) Stephanie Jones, Laura Lewis, Frederike Petzschner, and Theresa Raimondo; (bottom row, left to right:) Ritu Raman, Deblina Sarkar, Jessica Stark, and Joelle Straehla.

This spring, the cohort will pitch their ideas to a selection committee of faculty, biotech founders, and venture capitalists. The grand prize winner will receive $250,000 in discretionary funds, and the breakthrough science award winner and runner-up award winner will each receive $100,000. The winners will be announced at a showcase event on May 2, at which the entire cohort will share their work. All participants also receive a $10,000 stipend for participating in the competition.

“The support the MIT Faculty Founder Initiative provides female entrepreneurs in biotech is tremendous. Participants receive truly invaluable guidance from some of the world’s top experts to help hone their ideas and launch companies that have the potential to make a real impact in the biotech space,” adds Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.  

The MIT Faculty Founder Initiative was launched in 2020 by the MIT School of Engineering, in collaboration with the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. The idea for the program stemmed from a research project Bhatia conducted alongside Susan Hockfield, MIT Corporation life member, MIT president emerita, and professor of neuroscience, and Nancy Hopkins, professor emerita of biology. The team discovered that of the 250 biotech startups created by MIT professors, fewer than 10 percent had been founded by women, who made up 22 percent of all faculty.

In their research, the team estimated that if female faculty founded startups at the same rate as their male counterparts, there would be 40 more biotech companies.

“What that means is 40 more potential medicines. The societal impact of that is really important. It’s a lost opportunity,” says Bhatia, who co-write an editorial in Science alongside Hopkins and Hockfield.

In 2021, the Faculty Founder Initiative launched its first prize competition, which was supported by Northpond Ventures. Nine finalists pitched their ideas, with Ellen Roche, Latham Family Career Development Professor, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, and a core faculty of the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), taking the grand prize. Eight of the nine participants have continued on their entrepreneurial journey.

The second prize competition cohort includes researchers affiliated with MIT as well as Brown University.

“We are thrilled to be supporting the 2023-2024 MIT-Royalty Pharma Prize Competition and this cohort of 12 brilliant researchers. Their ideas can lead to transformative solutions for patients around the world,” says Pablo Legorreta, founder and CEO of Royalty Pharma.

The 2023-24 finalists include:

  • Anne Carpenter, institute scientist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, serves as the senior director of the Imaging Platform. She is an expert in developing and applying methods for extracting quantitative information from biological images, especially in a high-throughput manner. Her group’s open-source CellProfiler software is used by thousands of biologists worldwide and their Cell Painting assay has been adopted throughout the pharma industry to accelerate drug discovery. Carpenter earned a BS from Purdue University and a PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  • Kareen Coulombe, associate professor of engineering, is the director of graduate studies in biomedical engineering at Brown University and leads the Coulombe Lab for Heart Regeneration and Health. She studies cardiac regenerative medicine — from fundamentals of tissue formation and contractility to integration with the host heart — to develop translational therapies for heart disease patients around the world. Coulombe received a BS from the University of Rochester and a PhD from the University of Washington.
  • Betar Gallant, Class of 1922 Career Development Professor and associate professor of mechanical engineering, leads the Gallant Energy and Carbon Conversion Lab. Her research focuses on advanced battery chemistries and materials for high-energy rechargeable and primary batteries. She is also developing insights into reaction mechanisms that underpin advanced greenhouse gas mitigation technologies. Gallant received her BS, master’s degree, and PhD from MIT.
  • Carolina Haass-Koffler, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior and associate professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University, is the chief of Brown’s Clinical Neuroscience Lab. As a translational investigator, she combines preclinical and clinical research in an effort to examine bio-behavioral mechanisms of addiction and developing novel therapeutic interventions. Haass-Koffler received her BS from the University of California at Berkeley, her PharmD from the University of California at San Francisco, and her PhD from Università di Camerino.
  • Stephanie Jones is a professor of neuroscience at Brown University. Her research integrates human brain imaging and computational neuroscience methods to study brain dynamics in health and disease. She aims to develop biophysically principled models of neural circuits that bridge electrophysiological measures of brain function to the underlying cellular and network level dynamics. Jones received a BS and master’s degree in mathematics from Boston College, and a PhD in mathematics from Boston University, followed by neuroscience training at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). 
  • Laura Lewis is the Athinoula A. Martinos Associate Professor of IMES and EECS at MIT, principal investigator in the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT, and an associate faculty member at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH. Lewis focuses on neuroimaging approaches that better map brain function, with a particular focus on sleep. She is developing computational and signal processing approaches for neuroimaging data and applying these tools to study how neural computation is dynamically modulated across sleep, wake, attentional, and affective states. Lewis earned a BS at McGill University and a PhD at MIT.
  • Frederike Petzschner, assistant professor at the Carney Institute for Brain Science at Brown University. She also serves as the director of the Brainstorm Program, an incubator program that accelerates the translation of computational brain science to clinical applications and commercialization. She and her team at the PEAC (Psychiatry, Embodiment, and Computation) Lab study the latent cognitive processes that underpin perception and decision-making in both healthy individuals and those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, and, most recently, chronic pain. The group recently launched SOMA, a digital tool designed to assist individuals with chronic pain. Petzschner received a BS and MS from the University of Würzburg and a PhD from Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich.
  • Theresa Raimondo is an assistant professor of engineering at Brown University. Her research broadly centers around the design of RNA-lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) for therapeutic applications. By modulating both the RNA molecule (structure and sequence) and the lipid nanoparticle formulation, her team can deliver RNA-LNPs to immune cells in vivo for immunotherapy. In this application, siRNA-LNPs are used as a novel cancer checkpoint inhibitor therapy. Raimondo received a BS from Brown University and a MS and PhD from Harvard University.
  • Ritu Raman, the Brit (1961) and Alex (1949) d'Arbeloff Career Development Professor in Engineering Design and assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, designs adaptive living materials powered by assemblies of living cells for applications ranging from medicine to machines. Currently, she is focused on building living neuromuscular tissues to advance understanding of human disease and restore mobility after injury or trauma. Raman received a BS from Cornell University and an MS and PhD as an NSF Fellow from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  • Deblina Sarkar, the AT&T Career Development Professor and assistant professor of media arts and sciences at MIT, is the founder and director of the Nano-Cybernetic Biotrek research group. She conducts transdisciplinary research fusing engineering, applied physics, and biology, aiming to bridge the gap between nanotechnology and synthetic biology to develop disruptive technologies for nanoelectronic devices and create new paradigms for life-nanomachine symbiosis. She received a BTech from the Indian Institute of Technology and an MS and PhD from the University of California at Santa Barbara.
  • Jessica Stark starts as assistant professor in the departments of Biological Engineering and Chemical Engineering and the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT this month. She develops biological technologies to realize the largely untapped potential of glycans for immunological discovery and immunotherapy. Stark received a BS from Cornell University and a PhD from Northwestern University.
  • Joelle Straehla is a Charles W. (1995) and Jennifer C. Johnson Clinical Investigator at the Koch Institute, a pediatric oncologist at Dana-Farber/Boston Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, and an instructor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She conducts research at the intersection of nanotechnology and systems biology with the ultimate goal of accelerating cancer nanomedicine translation. She received a BS from the University of Florida and an MD from Northwestern University.