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Breast Cancer Startup Challenge

National Institute of Health (NIH)


In 2013, NCI in partnership with the Center for Advancing Innovation (CAI) conceived the idea to create a startup challenge as a strategy to move promising, early-stage National Institute of Health (NIH) technologies to the market. Later that year, NCI, CAI and a philanthropic partner, the Avon Foundation for Women, launched the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge (BCSC), a first-of-a-kind, international university-based competition. The idea arose from the need to address a fundamental problem: NCI technologies are typically very early stage, and there is a need to find partners to help develop them. However, the potential partners—biomedical companies—are reluctant to form partnerships around early-stage discoveries because of lengthy developmental timelines and high financial risk.

In creating the BCSC, nine emerging breast-cancer-related technologies were selected from the NCI patent portfolio, and one technology from the Avon Foundation for Women Grantee portfolio, with the primary goals of bringing them to market and stimulating the formation of startup businesses. The BCSC was one of the first competitions to focus on the creation of startups and is an innovative approach to licensing emerging federal technology and moving it to market. In addition to helping advance development and commercialization of multiple NCI inventions, the BCSC created a new model that can be applied to advance other federal technologies. Based on the BCSC framework, NIH has since launched the Neuro Startup Challenge and the Nanotechnology Startup Challenge.

Breast Cancer Startup Challenge

Winners and finalists from the challenge pose with their awards. (Photo courtesy of NCI)

The primary goal of the BCSC was to accelerate the development and commercialization of emerging breast cancer technology by designing a new competition that would result in the creation of startup companies. Because of the long, complex developmental timelines associated with biomedical technologies, blazing new ways for invention development is needed to meet the agency mission. The creation of BCSC was a way to address that; it provided another option and an additional way to find partners who can develop and commercialize potentially life-saving technology.

While a total of $50,000 in cash prizes were awarded to the 10 winning teams, the larger incentive was the opportunity to create a startup company around a promising NIH invention, and the opportunity to work with NIH and the CAI to further a business plan and develop early-stage breast cancer technologies.


Notable results include the following:

  • The challenge advanced development and commercialization of nine breast-cancer-related technologies from NCI and one from the Avon Foundation Grantee portfolio. Ten winners and two finalists were announced in March 2014. As of November 2015, three of these startups are active and viable. The startups formed as a result of the BCSC have created jobs and have the potential to stimulate economic development.
  • The BCSC provided an excellent educational platform to help postdoctoral and graduate students learn the "business of science," and motivate and train the next generation to meet NIH's mission.
  • The challenge increased the likelihood of moving promising NIH inventions to the market where they can have a positive impact on public health.
  • The BCSC established collaboration between the best minds and ideas from the federal, private, academic and entrepreneurial arenas to focus on the development and commercialization of federal inventions. It has served as a platform for crowdsourcing talent for startups and venture philanthropy.
  • The challenge created a new model to help advance other federal inventions. The BCSC framework was refined and used to launch the Neuro Startup Challenge in 2014 and the Nanotechnology Startup Challenge in October 2015.

Areas of Excellence

Area of Excellence #1: "Build a Team"

In 2013, NCI entered into a Partnership Intermediary Agreement (PIA) with CAI, a nonprofit, to evaluate and offer recommendations to help evaluate, market and commercialize the NCI patent portfolio. An outcome of that effort was the idea to create a business and startup challenge to help move certain technologies forward. Breast cancer was selected as the focus of the challenge. CAI was already working with the Avon Foundation for Women, and a three-way collaboration agreement was developed to implement the challenge by NCI, CAI and The Avon Foundation for Women.

Each partner and member of the team played a crucial role in the launch and execution of this challenge NCI advocated for the challenge by identifying and engaging multiple internal (federal) stakeholders early in the design process and obtaining their support before moving forward. This was a crucial, necessary and time-consuming effort; without the input and support of the key stakeholders, the challenge likely would have never gotten off the ground. Leading this effort, the project champion from the NCI Technology Transfer Center (TTC) sought feedback from NCI senior leadership (on the overall program), TTC staff (about design and technologies) and NCI's offices of communications and legal counsel.

NCI analyzed multiple inventions from its portfolio and selected technologies ideally suited for the challenge. This included engaging the NIH Office of Technology Transfer to analyze information on the patents and likelihood of licensing the inventions.

NCI reached out to Principal Inventors (PIs) with technologies proposed for the challenge to assess the inventor's willingness to participate in the new program and managed all interactions with PIs with inventions selected for the challenge. NCI scientists participated in the challenge by answering questions about their technologies in two webinars with the teams.

NCI also negotiated and put into place all the needed collaboration agreements to facilitate the challenge; developed messages and communications about the BCSC for internal audiences; worked with CAI to write external communications about the BCSC; and worked with the NCI press office to have those external communications reviewed and approved.

CAI negotiated and put into place the needed collaboration agreements to facilitate the challenge with Avon Foundation for Women, as well as sought a philanthropic partner to fund the challenge and managed all interactions with that partner. The center also created a proposal and pitched the challenge from the Avon Foundation for Women board of directors to raise money to pay for the challenge.

CAI conceived the initial design and collaborated with NCI to refine details of the challenge timelines, criteria, etc. The center developed and implemented a stakeholder engagement plan to entice entrepreneurs and university students to form teams and enter the competition. This required massive amounts of outreach to create awareness about and update the challenge model based on inputs. CAI managed all interactions with the teams entering the challenge and all interactions with the winning teams and startups at the conclusion of the challenge. This meant ensuring that teams met predetermined criteria to enter, managing the submission process and facilitating "live pitch sessions" by the competing teams.

CAI analyzed the NCI patent portfolio and provided input on inventions that would be suitable for the challenge given their commercial viability and most optimal commercialization path (being a startup). CAI also established a panel of qualified judges, mentors and advisors and managed the judging process.

Finally, the center also was instrumental in developing content on a variety of fronts, from the creation of training curriculum and course materials to the production of press releases and social media posts.

Area of Excellence #2: "Design the Challenge Structure"

The BCSC is a novel way to address a fundamental problem, focusing on creating startup companies to help develop and commercialize particular inventions rather than seeking out large commercial partners unwilling to invest at an early stage. CAI and NCI partnered to analyze the NCI patent portfolio. They selected nine promising breast-cancer-related technologies suitable for commercialization by startup companies.

Together NCI and CAI designed the framework for a startup competition targeted to university students. The framework included specific and strict criteria to enter the challenge. For instance, in order for a team to compete, it was required to form a multi-disciplinary team that included at least one seasoned entrepreneur, and students majoring in business, legal, medicine, science and, in certain cases, engineering or computer science. Teams averaged 10 members and typically included mentors and advisors who were industry leaders, venture capitalists, foundation executives, subject matter experts and academics.

The challenge framework was designed to cover three phases. Teams entered in the first phase. In the second phase, teams were tasked with presenting a live, five-minute sales pitch to a panel of judges and with creating business plans to develop and commercialize NIH inventions. In the third phase, the 12 BCSC winners and finalists incorporated their startups, began to raise funding and negotiated with the NIH Office of Technology Transfer to receive licenses to the technologies.

Area of Excellence #3: "Develop a Communications Plan"

CAI, working with NCI, took the lead in developing and executing the communications plan for the BCSC. It was developed and executed against a comprehensive stakeholder engagement plan to engage all members of the ecosystem at every step in the challenge. This included:

  • Funding partners—both non-dilutive funders (e.g., economic development organizations and foundations) and venture funders (e.g., angel and series A, including venture capital organizations, industry venture groups, economic development organizations and venture-oriented foundations)
  • Challenge participants—serial entrepreneurs to serve as mentors, judges and advisors for the teams; experts from academia and government and key opinion leaders; industry partners (e.g., licensing and research-and-development groups from large pharma); associations for additional resources (e.g., industry reports); other business plan and startup challenges to create a compounding effect (and also potential competitors); universities; patent advocacy groups to help spread the word; and other ecosystem channels (e.g., Biotechnology Industry Organization, Association of University Technology Managers, etc.)
  • Post-challenge engagement—incubators (for space), accelerators (for ongoing mentoring) and other startup challenges

The communications plan also included crowdsourcing world-class mentors, advisors and judges to supplement the core challenge team to build capacity throughout the challenge. For example, CAI recruited:

  • Elaine Jones, head of venture from Pfizer
  • Reinhard Ambrose, head of venture from Novartis
  • Scott Weiner, partner from Pappas Ventures

Area of Excellence #4: "Prepare to Announce"

In preparation to launch the BCSC, CAI:

  • Developed a comprehensive stakeholder engagement plan
  • Created a soft launch by engaging 385 people via telephone to gain input on the challenge design, including but not limited to timeline, criteria, team formation, etc.
  • Designed the logo for the challenge
  • Put out a press release
  • Created social media handles and posted everywhere based on topics like inventions, new judges, new teams in the challenge, challenge results, challenge timings, etc.
  • Developed a website with all stages, directions and criteria
  • Created a confidential disclosure agreement and other forms required for the challenge
  • Hosted webinars on the challenge
  • Provided cell phone numbers of the CAI team to actively engage possible teams and answer questions
  • Developed email templates for judges, advisors and mentors; potential teams; etc.
  • Created a poster, flyer and other deck materials for people to use
  • Hosted weekly team meetings to review communications
  • For its internal communications, NCI met with inventors to ensure they were comfortable with their invention being part of the challenge. The institute also developed invention overviews and had inventors review these to gain their input.
  • To support the announcement and launch, the challenge team developed guiding principles on how communications could be developed and deployed. The team also created standard wording that could be used.

Area of Excellence #5: "Document Metrics, Results and Outcomes"

For in-Challenge metrics, interested participants were tracked by way of the entry forms that they were required to complete in order to register for Phase 1 of the Challenge. The entry forms included confidential disclosure agreement forms, letter of intent forms and the resumes that they were required to provide. As the phases progressed, we also required teams accepted to continuously update CAI on any additions and subtractions to their teams. We captured each individual's organization, title, geographic location, years of experience and working discipline. We were able to convert these answers into metrics for the challenge. Key metrics from Phase I show the sheer number and diversity of participants:

  • 46 teams comprised of 476 people with more than 4,000 years of experience
  • 86 universities represented
  • 20 percent of participants were from outside of the United States
  • 18 percent of participants were women

CAI also obtains metrics for the startups and teams after Phase 2 through a number of auditing methods. For example, CAI sends out periodic feedback forms asking the startups for a feedback about the status of licensing the technology from NIH, incorporating of their startup company, the status of their team structure and progress with obtaining funding. Based on lessons learned from the BCSC, CAI has also developed a new "Founder's Agreement." The agreement outlines requirements of challenge winners, including requirements to provide status updates to CAI and to work closely with the CAI team to track their progress.

Through these follow-up methods, we have found that the challenge resulted in:

  • 11 startups;
  • eight licensing agreements;
  • $3 million raised by new companies;
  • 277 trained entrepreneurs; and
  • three additional startup challenges based on the BCSC model.

Challenge Type


As an example of a great entrepreneurship challenge, the BCSC:

  • Developed a rigorous new paradigm to train the next generation of scientists on the business of science
  • Brought together a diverse set of participants to consider developing technologies
  • Brought together a diverse set of judges and mentors to provide feedback to the teams as they developed business plans and pitches
  • Established a new model for venture philanthropy, creating a multiplier effect for grant vehicles—for the equivalent of one grant for one invention, 10 inventions could be pushed forward in a highly meaningful way
  • Created a new channel for invention commercialization
  • Directly supported the presidential memorandum and Startup America
  • Provided significant media and White House exposure for being a game-changing model for invention commercialization

Legal Authority

Tech Transfer Act of1986.

15 USC 3701 & 15 USC3710a.

Challenge Website