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Academia in Action: Entrepreneurship as part of university service

How does a medicinal chemistry professor start his career focused on drug discovery before transitioning to developing a video game and scaling up disease prevention? University of Utah professor Grzegorz Bulaj said it took a sabbatical and a bit of risk.

Bulaj started at the U as a professor of medicinal chemistry after working for a small biotech company in Research Park where he was the director of peptide chemistry. This background helped Bulaj later in his career when he went to start not just one, but three companies based on his university research. “As soon as I transitioned from working for the company and into the university, I immediately had an idea for a new venture,” Bulaj said.

In his early career at the U, Bulaj’s research focused on discovering and developing drugs for epilepsy and chronic pain. This research led to starting his first company with a colleague from the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. The R&D program resulted in an investigational new drug candidate, multiple patents and $7.5 million in funding.

Bulaj, however, wasn’t done researching and innovating. Around the same time, he was also working with a collaborator in the Department of Pediatrics, a team of faculty and students from the Entertainment, Arts and Engineering program at the U, and a non-profit to invent a video game that would help kids with cancer during their chemotherapy treatments. His work on “Disease Therapy Game Technology” was just the first step toward a new R&D direction.

When Bulaj took a sabbatical in 2013, he had more time to do things like read articles. He read one piece in particular about how listening to a specific musical composition could be effective in reducing seizures in people with epilepsy. This article stuck with him.

“We are talking about listening to a specific piece of music 10 minutes per day before bedtime, and after the first month you start having a reduction of seizures. And then after six months, more than 50% of patients have a more than 50% reduction of seizures,” he said about the article. This was a major “aha” moment for Bulaj, whose research up to that point focused on epilepsy and just started delving into digital health.

Around that time, the FDA also announced that it would approve mobile medical apps as digital therapeutics for the treatment of specific diseases, but Bulaj said there could not be such thing as “FDA-approved music” for the treatment for epilepsy. His solution? Creating an app that would deliver the music for epilepsy treatment.

“I became a big proponent of combining medications with software together as what we call drug plus digital combination therapy or, from the regulatory perspective, drug-device combination product,” he said. “The combination of these two is better than each alone, and we can also expand the intellectual property protection by integrating software-based copyrights with generic or branded medications.”

While Bulaj said this transition from drug discovery to digital therapeutics made sense, it “was like base jumping without the parachute,” because it was such a new, developing area of research and there were very few funding opportunities.

Nonetheless, Bulaj made that leap and started a second company around this idea, but the cutting-edge technology proved to be a little too cutting-edge at the time, according to Bulaj. The company presented the “classical entrepreneurial challenge,” Bulaj said, because investors wanted to see clinical data, but he needed the investment to move the studies forward to produce that data. Eventually Bulaj made the hard decision to close the company but continue his research at the university level.

I look at entrepreneurial activities as part of the university service. There's so much that we do in terms of educating, building and supporting communities.

The setback hasn’t stopped Bulaj from continuing to take risks and pursuing more entrepreneurial ventures. “I look at entrepreneurial activities as part of the university service,” he said. “There's so much that we do in terms of educating, building and supporting communities.”

Bulaj’s latest career pivot has taken him into the realm of disease prevention and figuring out how to make a successful business in that area.

“Our health care system is unsustainable on many levels, from affordability to impact on the environment,” he said. “Chronic disease prevention is a real-life challenge, since we prefer to invest in fixing rather than preventing health problems. That’s where I see my role as an entrepreneur is to tackle things that are unheard of.”

His newest venture is a consulting company where he lends his scientific expertise to companies looking to enter the health promotion and self-care space by serving as “a matchmaker between public health and businesses.” For example, he recently wrote a piece about how music streaming and consumer electronics companies can improve mental health and how businesses can use the scientific evidence to expand the value proposition of their products and services.

“I'm the company that people would go to and ask, ‘How do you create a health branding or marketing campaign of a product or service that you would not think about as health-related?’” he said.

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