Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Photos courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin

Photos courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin

If the Dell Medical School were a startup, it would have cleared some important milestones.

It’s funded. Construction will soon start on its campus. And it’s got a leader in Dr. Clay Johnston.

Before being named dean of Dell Medical School, Johnston had been the associate vice president for research at the University of California-San Francisco, one of the country’s top ranked medical schools.

His roles at UCSF included developing programs to help get discoveries from research laboratories to the marketplace as director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

He’s also been involved with a couple of startups. One has been backed by Rock Health, a digital health technology accelerator in San Francisco.

On the job since March 1, Johnston has started work on a range of priorities: hiring, developing curriculum, getting the school accredited and supervising construction. All of which must be done by the time the school welcomes its first class of 50 students in fall 2016.

Beyond those issues, Johnston told Silicon Hills News that he wants the school to play a role in the Central Texas economy.

Q. Silicon Hills News: You’re leading what could be the biggest startup in Austin.

A. Clay Johnston: It is definitely a startup, with the same sorts of issues and the same sorts of opportunities. The one nice thing is that it’s a startup that’s already through Series B funding in spite of just being a handful of employees right now. We’ll fix that pretty quickly.

Q. SHN: What’s your pitch for hiring to staff a brand new medical school?

A. CJ: It’s actually a pretty easy sales pitch. We’re really interested in people who see a better way forward, who see an opportunity to better provide health care, to provide better education in health care, to meet the innovation method of improving health more efficiently.

Those are people who often have been working hard to be creative or even transformative in their own institutions but are frustrated by the difficulty in making progress. So the opportunity in starting from the ground up is you really can have much more control.

And it’s more than just an opportunity. It’s almost a responsibility. Academic medicine is pretty stodgy, slow to change and is fully engaged in some of the dysfunction of the current health care delivery system. We have a responsibility to take advantage of our newness to test out different ways of doing things that could become models for the rest of the country.

That is an exciting startup to be a part of. It appears to be drawing the right type people, people who really want to make a difference.

Q. SHN: Have you had interactions with the tech community in San Francisco that helps getting the medical school started?

A. CJ: I’ve been involved with a couple of startups myself. One of which died before it was funded and one that’s still struggling; that came through Rock Health.

At UCSF, we set up systems to try to support people who had ideas for health products to get them to the startup stage. Sometimes to out-licensing stages and that included anything from biotech to technology devices, diagnostics, the whole range. I don’t have any personal stake in those but in creating the system to support them. This was a big part of my last job and I hope will be an important part of what the medical school does in Austin.

The system we created at UCSF ended up working quite well, creating a nice community that brought together a variety of folks from various industries that impact the startup world including entrepreneurs but others as well. And then brought them together with clinicians and also with laboratory-based scientists. And again it worked well.

Q. SHN: What is an area of opportunity in health and medicine?

A. CJ: For me a huge area of opportunity that no one has claimed yet is in digital health; in particular health technology companies from big data-type companies to personal sensor-type companies to clinician tools to assistants to clinicians and provision of care.

That has been a rapidly growing area for venture capital, but no place has really assumed dominance. The Bay Area is probably in the best position to do so because of the venture capital here but Austin could really take a leadership position in that space.

Q. SHN: What does a medical school bring to the mix that helps bring ideas from the lab to the marketplace?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA. CJ: There are a couple of ways that can happen. The ideas can come from the academic medical center and out into the community. That’s the traditional model for how this stuff happens. Basic science discovery that works its way out into a biotech company. That will definitely be an important role for the medical school over time, but it will be a while before we have even 100 faculty. And although we are clearly going to draw faculty that are more entrepreneurial and, I’m sure, more technology focus because that’s a major focus of the school. It will still be a while before their ideas they originate move out from the medical school.

What we would like to do is think about the Dell Medical School being a bridge to the community where an entrepreneur may have an idea about a new digital health application and then we can help assess whether that’s a viable idea in the current health care system and help modify it to increase the likelihood that it’s successful. And potentially create the environment in which to test it and demonstrate its value.

That’s similar to what we have done at UCSF and was really helpful. It’s more about creating these teams as opposed to creating the ideas. It’s assuring that you have the right expertise and laboratory in which to evaluate these interventions. That’s what we’re hoping to build at Dell Medical School.

Q. SHN: Have you been able to identify areas of research strength at UT Austin in places like the Department of Biomedical Engineering or College of Natural Sciences?

A. CJ: It’s too early to say specifically, but I’ll just say there is a tremendous amount of opportunity in the schools you just mentioned and in others.

In the computer science arena it’s just so ready to look for practical applications on the more clinical end of the spectrum. All the right tools are in place other than clinical informatics which needs to be developed at UT, but isn’t going to be a natural part of the medical school.

In Natural Sciences, too, and in many other areas in the university there have been through the years fabulous discoveries, fabulous scientists and they are clamoring for translational medicine that’s going to allow them to move their discoveries out to become health improvements. That’s been a major part of my job at UCSF and is easy for me to imagine how we can create those supporting systems for UT. So I think there’s huge opportunity there and we will definitely take that on.

Q. SHN: How was the process of commercializing research conducted at UCSF?

A. CJ: We created the UCSF Catalyst program. That program’s been going on for about three years. The return on investment in just research dollars alone gained from the program was on the order of tenfold so it’s been a highly successful program.

We encourage ideas. Now we do it for the community but first it was just for UCSF core health products. They could be drugs, diagnostics, devices or digital health, in any of those spaces. And then we have the ideas vetted by experts on those areas. Venture capitalists, biotech CEOs, digital health company CEOs, IP attorneys who form these of review panels for us. They would judge not the science, but how promising the discovery was and how promising the idea for a health product was. Then a subset of those received consultational awards, we called them. Basically we would form a team around the proposer to figure out how best to move it forward. That team would work the proposer to optimize the idea.

I can give you can example.

There was a guy working on a drug for Kaposi sarcoma and the drug also worked for other herpes viruses. It was just that he had started on Kaposi sarcoma and the group had him do some projects to demonstrate that it could work HSV-1 (herpes simplex virus-1) and that changed an idea that was probably going to go nowhere because it didn’t have an adequate market potential to one that has tremendous market potential.

He has gone on to get funding and move it forward. That was a simple but really important change that happened through the advice of that team.

It has worked really well and also worked to change the culture both on the academic side and the community side. There are now 120 consultants who volunteer as part of the program. They’re getting value because they can see cutting edge science coming from the university but also because they’re networking with each other. And that’s definitely valuable to them. So it’s been a big win-win program. You could imagine that would work well in Austin, particularly around the digital health area but also in other areas.

The University of Texas also published an interview with Johnston this week and did the video interview embedded below.