Tokyo was an exotic setting for the 2017 Global SPARK Biomedical Innovation and Entrepreneurship Training Course. Outside the course rooms, it was hot and humid and an enormous and eclectic city bustled around us. The city also provided a measure of ecological excitement, in the form of three small earthquakes and one narrowly missed typhoon! However, with a course that was as intensive and demanding as the SPARK one, there wasn’t too much spare time for sight seeing.

 

With a similar premise to other SPARK Design courses, a combination of lectures and project development workshops were used to train us scientists and clinicians in the fundamental aspects of biomedical innovation and entrepreneurship. The lecturers and mentors comprised a “dream team” of global biomedical entrepreneurs, including Course Director Prof Michael Wallach (inaugural director of the SPARK Sydney program), Prof Daria Mochly-Rosen (Founder and Director of the Stanford SPARK program), A/Prof Kevin Grimes (Co-director of the Stanford SPARK program), Prof Craig Garner (Co-founder of the SPARK Berlin program), Dr Fumiaki Ikeno (Program Director of Stanford Biodesign) and many others.

 

The course took a fairly informal approach to lecturing, so rather than being bombarded with mountains of dry facts, we were educated in more entertaining and interactive ways. We went on tours of a preclinical animal laboratory as well as the Phase I clinical trial unit at Tokyo University, giving us insight into the day-to-day operations at different research levels along the commercialisation pathway. In terms of lectures, most of Michael’s involved the entire class sitting in a circle, and tended to be discussions rather than lectures – encouraging us to continually engage and interact. Some of the mentors also shared the amazing stories of their journeys through the world of biomedical entrepreneurship. Dr Fumiaki Ikeno gave a highly entertaining whirlwind tour of his career trajectory from a family doctor in rural Japan to his work with MedTech start-ups through his work at Stanford. Prof Craig Garner gave a fascinating talk about his research into the neurological symptoms of down syndrome and the success he has had in treating it, as well as other neurological disorders – his talk highlighting the benefits of looking outside the box when problem solving. Prof Daria Mochly-Rosen told her story of the development of KAI Pharmaceuticals, and as she shared the highs and lows of her story we followed her on her journey, and it was a truly inspirational talk.

 

But as important as the lectures were, the challenging and productive part of the course came from the project teamwork. We students were from varied backgrounds, both culturally (coming from seven countries – Australia, Brazil, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, USA and Norway) and academically (being scientists, engineers, clinicians and bioinformaticians). We were assigned into teams of four, and straight away we were given “get-to-know” you tasks, which not only worked as icebreakers but were also quite fun too! The first was a competition to see which team could build the tallest structure using a few pieces of spaghetti, some string, some tape, and a marshmallow that had to sit on top (I’m happy to say I was on the winning team here!). The second short task was closer to our actual workshop project – we were given a problem and had to come up with a novel solution to overcome it, taking into account factors such as costs, market and end users.

 

The workshop project itself was like a mini, sped up version of other SPARK Design courses. Over the first few days, we had to come up with medical problems and potential solutions, whilst continuously evaluating our ideas for their novelty, obviousness, IP potential, feasibility, cost and marketability. Most importantly, it was emphasised again and again, we needed to pick a problem that we were passionate about. After settling on one problem, we started figuring out the nuts and bolts of our solution – our Proof of Concept work plan, our success/failure criteria, our timeline and budget, and what form our IP protection would take. For my team, and I think for many others, our project evolved and changed many times over the course of the workshop, until we had eventually honed it into a plan that we were proud of. On the final day, each team pitched their ideas to a panel of experts and mentors. The pitches were all of impressive quality and varied in the problems and solutions given.  

 

Overall it was an extremely valuable two weeks for me, where I met incredible mentors who have done some amazing translational science. I also made many friends – like-minded peers at similar stages in their careers. It was an educational experience in many different ways, the course having a strong emphasis on the development of an innovative mindset – a way of problem solving by thinking outside of the box. Finally, working with such a diverse and talented team of people made it an extremely enjoyable and educational experience that I am very grateful for having been a part of. 

 

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Liz Johnstone is currently working on her post-doctorate research in the lab of A/Prof Kevin Pfleger and works part time for Accelerating Australia. Liz, along with 9 other researchers from Australia, attended the SPARK global course, 7 of which were sponsored by Accelerating Australia and 3 sponsored by MTP Connect.

Senior project officer, Liz Johnstone with Course Director of the 2017 training course, Michael Wallach.

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