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Scientist Driven to Make Things Happen

Posted: December 5, 2016

Innovators get uneasy when ventures and progress lags

Innovators who spot opportunities can often be stymied within academia, said Dan Deaver — a former Penn State tenured professor of reproductive physiology and innovator in the life sciences — during Global Entrepreneurship Week at Penn State.

Watch Deaver's talk:

Dan Deaver GEW Thurs keynote from Lisa Duchene on Vimeo.

Deaver spent about half of his career as a life scientist within academia — and half at a private company. He delivered the Start-Up Shakeup keynote of GE Week on Nov. 17.

Deaver served as Professor of Reproductive Physiology at Penn State from 1983 to 2000 and was the Associate Director of the Center for Cell Research.

He departed from academia, he said, because he was driven to make things happen and could not do that in the university environment. His interest and instinct, for example, to work with many different people across disciplines had been frowned upon.

Serendipitous Connections

Over three decades as a life scientist, Deaver has connected and collaborated with a half-dozen other innovators whose work led to new ventures and new products.

Nobody planned all those connections among that small group of people, said Deaver, who served from 1999-2016 as the VP of non-clinical drug development for Alkermes, a global biopharmaceutical company. He is now a drug development consultant.

“There are certain traits that I think we all share,” said Deaver of those innovators. “Number one is the passion to get something done and make something happen. And we get a little uneasy and uncomfortable when things don’t move fast enough and then we go out and we do things differently.”

One of those ventures grew out of a research collaboration at Penn State. He’d met David Edwards, who was then working at MIT.

“David’s the most amazing entrepreneur I’ve ever met,” said Deavers, recalling how Edwards had been thinking about the problem of delivering drugs to the lungs. He thought about how pollen effectively reaches lungs and explored making ultra-light drug particles that could be inhaled into the lungs.

Edwards and Deavers were among a group of scientists who published a paper in the journal Science in 1997, demonstrating that the delivery technique could be effective for steroids and proteins.

That led to a company, Advanced Inhalation Research, which was designed with the idea of making an inhalable version of insulin.

“I had this desire to make things happen. I had the work I was doing and I wanted to make a product out of it,” said Deavers.

Soon, that venture was acquired by Alkermes in 1999 for $120 million.

Developing New Drugs

During a 17-year career at Alkermes, Deavers worked on the development teams for three pharmaceuticals on the market today:

• Vivitrol, the only drug treatment for opioid addiction that is not an opioid

• BYDUREON to treat Type 2 Diabetes

• and ARISTADA® (aripiprazole lauroxil), for treating schizophrenia.

Deaver holds four patents and has been involved in 15 more patents.

He told his story — and the stories of entrepreneurial research scientists he admires. Russell Marker, for example, was a Penn State research chemist who achieved the first practical synthesis of the pregnancy hormone progesterone by a process now known as the “Marker Degradation.”

Marker commercialized the process in 1944 at a company he founded in Mexico City. A particular species of Mexican yam provided an economical source of the starting material Marker used.

Marker’s work led to industrial preparation of the anti-inflammatory drug cortisone. Marker’s starting material was used in 1951 by researchers at the company he co-founded to synthesize the first useful oral contraceptive.

Today, developing new drugs typically takes an investment of 15 years and $2 billion. Public universities have a role to play in changing how new drugs are developed, said Deaver, who highlighted the Invent Penn State initiative.