Dr. Eric Kmiec believes innovators don’t decide whether an idea is worth pursuing. The data decides.
“I’ve seen many people promote their data where they wanted it to work so badly, it consumes them, drives them into sloppy science and they end up stumbling scientifically,” says the executive director and chief scientific officer of the ChristianaCare Gene Therapy Institute and CEO of CorriXR Therapeutics, the biotech spinout whose initial focus is oncology.
“Their enthusiasm cloaks the truth; they design experiments solely to make their innovation look better, rather than doing the tougher controls to evaluate their hypothesis and try to disprove it. That’s the essence of science. I was once told by the president of the National Academy of Sciences: ‘The truth always comes out in science. Better to be early to that game than to be late.’”
Dr. Kmiec is known throughout the scientific community for his pioneering work in the fields of molecular medicine and gene editing, which is a group of technologies that enable scientists to change an organism’s DNA. He has researched and developed CRISPR-based genetic therapies for sickle cell disease and non-small cell lung cancer. He holds faculty appointments at the University of Delaware and the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia and has been a National Institute of Health and National Science Foundation-supported principal investigator for 34 years.
He recently shared his views on innovation in Delaware and the path forward for innovators.
One of the great advantages of a state the size of Delaware is, frankly, the size of Delaware. There are a lot of collateral and productive interactions occurring daily that provide access to government officials, CEOs and state and county committees that can help guide your thoughts surrounding innovation. There are certainly advantages baked into coming from an ecosystem where there are hundreds of startups, but in those situations, you almost must be a distinct yet mature program to receive the appropriate attention to develop your innovative ideas. By contrast, here in Delaware, you can get in to see people who can evaluate the probability of success and even give you some advice on the return on investment. The state has also dedicated itself to expanding the availability of lab space for not only startups but for mezzanine-level companies and encouraging new real estate projects throughout the state for those of us who seek to expand our operations.
Relentlessness and a long-term belief in your ideas. I experienced a great deal of pushback in the early years of gene editing where many people believed it was just a fantasy and would never happen. I was also told that in vivo (in living cells) delivery would never occur and the whole idea of introducing biotherapeutics into the body was a dead end. Now, they are the biggest fans of the Gene Editing Institute.
Take your time and understand that excellent scientific ideas are often incremental advances that often do not translate into the world of application. In fact, if you are trained properly in science, you are taught to develop incremental advances, and once you or your colleagues cobble together a number of those incremental advances, you will have something that could be a significant step forward. But it takes time, and we are by design impatient, so one of the greatest flaws is that we want to push things forward because we “know” it’s right. That’s a deadly mistake. Be resolute in your belief, but also look to solve a fundamental but rather simple problem first.
I learned a hard lesson in the early days of gene editing. Good ideas need time to mature, and good things await those who are patient. As frustrating and painful and methodical as it might be, researchers must establish a foundational base for their idea. If that idea survives the constant multi-dimensional probing, then that idea will be the one worth pursuing. In addition, you need to understand that negative feedback is far more important than positive feedback.
I had to learn to be patient through the years and pioneered a lot of gene editing concepts early on. I’m still here to watch the field emerge and do great things. It’s a rewarding space for me now. Looking back, CRISPR was actually identified and studied intently in the mid-1980s, and some could argue today that those early scientists who understood the microbiology of milk fermentation actually helped in the discovery of CRISPR and they should have been part of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded in 2020. It was their work that enabled Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier to translate its use into human cells and the rest, as they say, is history.
I’ve also found that new innovators immediately want to start a company thinking that raising money is easy and that once they mature it for a while, they’ll become wealthy. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that.