Pioneering Idea to Catalog Sources behind Marine-based Medicines Wins Novel Young President's Competition at Scripps


The vast diversity of natural sources, or compounds, housed at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego hold immeasurable potential for biomedical applications. Extracted by Scripps researchers on diving expeditions to Fiji, Panama, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, and other exotic destinations, the compounds carry the hope that one day their molecular makeup could lead to drugs to treat diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, and various forms of cancer.

George Nicola also sees great potential in the natural compound collection, but from a different viewpoint. A postdoctoral scholar at the UCSD Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and recent MBA graduate from UCSD’s Rady School of Management, Nicola, along with Scripps Oceanography and Skaggs Professor Bill Gerwick, believe the potential of the marine sources could be maximized by being organized and catalogued in a “natural compound library” at Scripps, in conjunction with the Skaggs School of Pharmacy.

“Currently, this collection is completely inaccessible to drug companies; the traditional route of patenting and licensing one compound at a time is the preferred method…,” said Nicola. “We are seeking to build an avenue that will bring this vast collection of natural compounds into a suitable format the drug companies can screen.”

Such a liaison between the university and outside pharmaceutical companies holds a potentially massive revenue stream for the university, Nicola says. Part of the revenue could go to the governments where the sources were collected, supporting efforts to protect and preserve natural marine resources for the future.

“The goal of this effort is to influence the sustainability of their ecological conditions,” said Nicola, who was introduced to the natural compound library idea during his MBA education at the Rady School by Steve Flaim, Nicola’s executive mentor, of the von Liebig Center at the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering.

Not only do Nicola and Gerwick believe the idea has merit, but so do more than 75 of San Diego’s leading CEOs and other business leaders. The Scripps Natural Compounds Library idea recently took first place in a science-meets-business competition jointly organized by Scripps Oceanography and the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), a global business education and networking association.

In a unique competition intended to blend the business acumen of YPO with Scripps’ scientific leadership, students, faculty, and staff at Scripps were challenged with coming up with ideas (presented in short, YouTube-style videos) that address global ecological and environmental issues. The goal was to foster ties between scientists and business leaders in support of scientific research.

On Nov. 17, “Scripps-YPO Innovation Challenge” workshops were held at the Scripps Seaside Forum that determined which of three finalists would prevail. Groups of 50 YPO invitees worked with each of the finalist teams to construct a basic business plan around each research theme. The final presentations were judged via a web-based platform allowing YPO attendees to text message their votes.

“Scripps scientists don’t typically get the opportunity to cross paths with the business leaders in YPO and on the flipside YPO members are rarely forced to think about an environmental issue front to back, so this event was perfect for getting each of them to think inside the other’s box,” said Steve Bennett, director of business development at Scripps. “Each group has a different set of problem-solving skills, but each has an explorative mindset. The strengths of the two work well together.”

In winning the $10,000 cash prize, the Scripps Natural Compounds Library project beat out stiff competition posed by a group looking to develop biodegradable plastics from algae and another working on aerial ocean imaging.

“I am tremendously grateful to YPO for recognizing this business opportunity and awarding us this prize,” said Nicola. “This will help take the project to the next step in realizing its full commercial potential.”

“There’s a very exciting vision at UCSD to combine the completely unique marine compound resources discovered at Scripps with the incredible biomedical strengths at the UCSD Schools of Pharmacy and Medicine, including the Moores Cancer Center, and take discoveries from ‘the sea to the bedside,’ all on the UCSD campus,” said Gerwick, who’s initial ideas prompted the winning entry. “This compound library will certainly play a key and pivotal role in realizing this vision.”

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