Brown engineering professors Coulombe and Raimondo among 12 MIT Faculty Founder Initiative finalists

The prize competition promotes female entrepreneurs in biotech.

The MIT Faculty Founder Initiative has announced twelve finalists for the 2023-2024 MIT-Royalty Pharma Prize Competition, a program created to support female faculty entrepreneurs in biotechnology and provide them with resources to help take their ideas to commercialization. For the first time, the prize competition selected finalists from both MIT and Brown. Brown engineering professors Kareen Coulombe and Theresa Raimondo were among those finalists. 

“We are building a playbook to get inventions out of the lab toward impacting patients by connecting female faculty to the innovation ecosystem and creating a community of peers,” said Sangeeta Bhatia, the John J. and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and faculty director of the MIT Faculty Founder Initiative. Bhatia is a 1990 graduate of Brown Engineering. 

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.

Kareen Coulombe, associate professor of engineering, is the director of graduate studies in biomedical engineering at Brown 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. 

Theresa Raimondo was recently named an assistant professor of engineering at Brown and began her appointment on January 1. 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. 

These two, along with the rest of the cohort, will pitch their ideas to a selection committee of faculty, biotech founders, and venture capitalists in the spring of 2024. 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 MIT Faculty Founder Initiative was launched in 2020 by the MIT School of Engineering, in collaboration with the Martin Trust Center. 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, less 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,” said 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. The second prize competition cohort included researchers affiliated with MIT and Brown.

Other 2023-2024 finalists include: Anne Carpenter, institute scientist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Betar Gallant, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT; Carolina Haass-Koffler, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior and associate professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown; Stephanie Jones, professor of neuroscience at Brown; Laura Lewis, associate professor of IMES and EECS at MIT; Frederike Petzschner, assistant professor at the Carney Institute for Brain Science at Brown; Ritu Raman, professor in engineering design and assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT;  Deblina Sarkar, career development professor and assistant professor of media arts and sciences at MIT; Jessica Stark, assistant professor in the departments of biological and chemical engineering and the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research; Joelle Straehla, clinical investigator at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, pediatric oncologist at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, and  instructor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. 

Mary Beth Gallagher, MIT School of Engineering Director of Communications, contributed to this story.