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Five WashU research teams win LEAP Inventor Challenge Awards

September 8, 2017

Five Washington University in St. Louis research teams have been selected to receive funding as part of the Summer 2017 cycle of the Leadership in Entrepreneurial Acceleration Program, better known as the LEAP Inventor Challenge (LEAP). The challenge’s facilitators anticipate investing more than a quarter million dollars in this cycle’s winners.

LEAP exists to propel Washington University intellectual property towards commercialization. The money that teams win helps fund their early stage research so that they can turn their concepts and ideas into viable products and services. The competition supports all Washington University faculty, postdoc, staff and graduate student teams.

The winning teams include:

A Cellular Delivery Systems for the Treatment and Imaging of Cancer

This a new class of immunotherapy, in which a specific stem cell population can identify and home to tumors, and serve as drug-carriers for delivery of therapeutic and imaging agents.


  • Kareem Azab, BPharm, PhD (Lead Investigator), Assistant Professor of Radiation Oncology; Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering
  • Barbara Muz, PharmD, PhD, Senior Scientist, Department of Radiation Oncology


Immunizing Virotherapy for Cancer

This engineered virotherapy will allow rational design of next generation adenoviruses that can harvest the full benefit of anti-tumor immunization as a novel approach for metastatic cancer.


  • David T. Curiel, MD, PhD (Lead Investigator), Professor of Radiation Oncology and Cancer Biology, Director of the Biologic Therapeutics Center


Smart Fertilizers for Sustainable Agriculture

This project develops smart fertilizers for agricultural crops that provide highly efficient nutrients at low-cost and an eco-friendly alternative to conventional methods. This offers a great potential to tailor fertilizer production with the desired chemical composition, improve the nutrient use efficiency that may reduce environmental impact and boost the plant productivity.


  • Ramesh Raliya, PhD (Lead Investigator), Research Scientist, School of Engineering and Applied Science
  • Pratim Biswas, PhD, Assistant Vice Chancellor & Department Chair of the Department of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering; Lucy and Stanley Lopata Professor of Environmental Engineering Science


Zika Virus to Kill Cancer Stem Cells

This work will further develop the safe and effective use of modified Zika virus to kill brain cancer stem cells. It redirects the virus at malignant cells in the brain that tend to be resistant to current treatments. [See Zika virus kills brain cancer stem cells]


  • Milan G. Chheda, MD (Lead Investigator), Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine, Oncology Division, ICCE Institute; Department of Neurology
  • Michael S. Diamond, MD, PhD (Lead Investigator), Herbert S. Gasser Professor, Departments of Medicine, Molecular Microbiology, Pathology & Immunology; Associate Director, The Andrew M. and Jane M. Bursky Center for Human Immunology and Immunotherapy Programs, Washington University School of Medicine


Anion exchange membranes for water desalination and energy applications

This project uses anion exchange membranes for energy and water desalination applications, aiming to disrupt the current energy and water purification landscape.


  • Vijay Ramani, PhD (Lead Investigator), Roma B. & Raymond H. Wittcoff Distinguished University Professor of Environment & Energy, Department of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering
  • Shrihari Sankarasubramanian, PhD, Research Associate, electrochemical engineering, Department of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering


Three of this cycle’s researchers are veterans of the competition: Dr. Kareem Azab, Dr. David T. Curiel, and Dr. Ramesh Raliya. This is Azab’s third LEAP win—his previous two wins were in 2015 for two separate projects. Azab explains the impact of LEAP on his past projects: “In the first project, the LEAP award helped us generate preliminary data that helped us provide a proof of concept for a local drug delivery technology for treatment of brain tumors, and we used this data to support our patent application which was approved and published this month; in addition, the technology is now being licensed to our startup company, Targeted Therapeutics LLC.

The second LEAP award helped us provide clinical validation for a new set of biomarkers to detect multiple myeloma cells better than currently available technologies and helped us obtain a patent. Moreover, this technology has been marketed to several companies in the cancer biomarkers area and is in the process of being licensed to our startup company, Cellatrix LLC.”

When asked what motivates him to churn out so many successful projects in such a short period of time, Azab responds, “Patients’ benefit is our top priority. The main driver for discovery and innovation is the clinical need.”

This is Curiel’s second LEAP award (previously won in Fall 2015 for a different project), and this is Raliya’s second LEAP award for the same project (previously won in Fall 2016).

Several university departments work together on LEAP to maximize industry engagement and funding opportunities. Such facilitators include the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Skandalaris), the Office of Technology Management (OTM), the Institute of Clinical and Translational Sciences (ICTS), and the Center for Drug Discovery (CDD).

The Director of CDD, Michael S. Kinch, PhD, explains that LEAP helps his department “identify new healthcare breakthroughs by partnering with expert judges from the biopharmaceutical and venture capital sectors, who help us prioritize investments into promising new medicines.”

As Kinch references, a key element of LEAP is to set up the participating teams for success through industry-relevant mentorship and exposure. Not only is this accomplished by connecting the teams to mentors prior to the finals, but also by bringing in industry-relevant judges to the finals. While this helps the teams immensely, the judges also see it as a benefit to them:

“The value that I see in my participation,” explains Ken Janoski, Managing Partner at Guidance Ventures and LEAP judge, “is the opportunity to engage and interact with the Washington University research community, the local bio-entrepreneurial community, and my fellow reviewers who bring their expertise and insight from Big Pharma, venture capital, and industry.

And Big Pharma’s involvement is a win for us all: guidance for the researchers; insight into Big Pharma’s perspective for the investors, entrepreneurs, and advisors; and significantly, the engagement of a potential corporate partner with the local bio-ecosystem!”

Think you have what it takes? Apply for the next cycle of the LEAP Inventor Challenge through the Skandalaris Center.