Advancing Oncology InnoVAtion QuickFire Challenge Open to Roanoke-Blacksburg Companies

The DC QuickFire Challenge previously helped The Tiny Cargo Company accelerate their business and connected them with national mentors and resources. Current challenge is open to oncology innovators and includes grant funding, a one-year VTCRC residency with a lab bench, and access to the global Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS network. 

Do you have an idea that could transform patient outcomes in oncology? Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS, in collaboration with Carilion Clinic Innovation, Verge Alliance (with support from City of Roanoke), and Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center recently launched the Advancing Oncology InnoVAtion QuickFire Challenge; applications are open now until August 11.

The innovator(s) with the best potential solution can receive grant funding from a total pool of $300,000, Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center residency for one year, which includes one lab bench and workstation, access to the global Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS (JLABS) network, and mentorship from experts across The Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies (Johnson & Johnson).

This QuickFire Challenge hopes to build on the promise of previous challenge awardees who have also originated from the Roanoke region. In 2021, The Tiny Cargo Company was awarded the Washington, DC Health Innovation QuickFire Challenge, receiving grant funding and one year of residency at JLABS @ Washington, DC. Founded by Dr. Rob Gourdie and currently led by Dr. Spencer Marsh, The Tiny Cargo Company developed a novel drug delivery system based on non-immunogenic bovine milk-derived exosomes for protected oral or IV based delivery of potent therapeutics.

About Tiny Cargo: Tackling Acute Radiation Syndrome

The Tiny Cargo Company seeks to solve a dire and unmet need – a systemic treatment for exposure to high-dose ionizing radiation resulting in Acute Radiation Syndrome. There is currently no treatment for exposure to high doses (>6 Gy) of ionizing radiation that can occur as a result of radio-nuclear attack or accident. 

Tiny Cargo’s orally administered therapeutic, XoLacta, consists of milk exosomes loaded with a potent radioprotective peptide. Their technology makes oral administration possible as the exosomes Tiny Cargo has developed are capable of bypassing the gut-blood barrier in moments, and also of bypassing other critical barriers such as the blood-brain barrier. 

Their technology has achieved proof-of-concept for in vivo efficacy; they are continuing to validate the effectiveness of their therapy in ongoing studies. They’re currently developing large-scale production systems and methods for storage at ambient temperatures to increase the usability and availability of their groundbreaking XoLacta product. 

Perhaps most exciting, Tiny Cargo is seeking to adapt their exosomal technology to deliver therapies for a wide range of diseases including ischemic heart disease, gastrointestinal radiation disease, glioblastoma multiforme and neurological pathologies. 

From Local to National: Tiny Cargo’s Startup Journey

The Tiny Cargo Company began its startup journey in earnest in 2020, when Dr. Spencer Marsh (Chief Scientific Officer) joined the company and applied for incubation in RAMP. During this time, the company expanded operations to build out the business plan, marketing plan, corporate structure, and identify its optimal use case. The Tiny Cargo team was mentored by world-class experts in business development including Mike Abbott and Lisa Garcia, NSF ICORPS trained mentors. 

After graduating from RAMP, Tiny Cargo was selected as an awardee of the Washington, DC Health Innovation QuickFire Challenge, earning $50,000 in grant funding, one year of residency at JLABS @ Washington, DC, and expert mentorship. 

The team honed their investment pitches and identified appropriate experts to bring on board as consultants and advisors, had the opportunity to pitch to experts from the FDA and other government organizations, enabling advanced networking and outreach, and successfully received a National Science Foundation award.

“Without support from RAMP and incubation within JLABS, we assuredly would not have been successful in being awarded our first SBIR grant. Only one year later, we are now on pace to be awarded a $2M Phase II SBIR grant in the next 6 months; a true testament to the value of the local ecosystem,” Marsh said. 

Addressing Challenges: How RAMP and JLABS Impacted the Tiny Cargo Trajectory

As a scientist, the list of challenges in creating a startup can be long but with the right support, it’s not insurmountable. The research and technology are a critical first steps, but only one portion of creating a business.

“With no background in business development, market research, customer discovery, or even basic knowledge of how to build a business, we had a lot to learn- the only background we had was in developing and conducting world-class research,” Marsh said.  

With the support of the local RAMP incubator and subsequently the JLABS @ Washington, DC and BLUE KNIGHTÔprograms, Tiny Cargo was able to find its footing and establish itself as a major player on the international level. The team surrounded themselves with experts from the business world and found it invaluable to their growth. It facilitated their growth, helped mitigate challenges and allowed for quick solutions to major issues.  

“The support from other business leaders, RAMP mentors, and the JLABS team through the QuickFire Challenge has been a critical element of The Tiny Cargo Company’s growth. Their example shows that the Roanoke-Blacksburg region has the people and network to support biotech and tech startups, thanks to mentors who have been there,” said Verge President, Erin Burcham.

Joining the Innovation Ecosystem: How to Get Involved

“As I tell every entrepreneur in the region, the best thing you can possibly do for yourself as you’re starting out is to join RAMP. The RAMP program is the perfect resource for any biotechnology company. 

“From there, I would highly recommend joining the Johnson & Johnson Innovation  JLABS  program; Sally Allain, Head of JLABS @ Washington, DC is an invaluable resource, along with the expert mentors provided through Johnson & Johnson,” Marsh said.

The QuickFire Challenge is open to innovators from around the globe aiming to transform patient outcomes in oncology in adult populations with potential applications in pediatric oncology. 

“Roanoke is fast becoming a hub for biotechnology and life sciences,” said Marc Nelson, Director of Economic Development for the City of Roanoke. “The strong partnerships we’ve fostered globally will present invaluable opportunities to businesses from across a range of sectors for years to come. The City of Roanoke is proud of our investment in such an innovative and exciting partnership.”

“These types of efforts are exciting opportunities for our clinician scientists at Carilion. Collaborations with strong local partners and notable international ones will support the growth of the biotechnology sector in Roanoke and Blacksburg, ultimately improving access to high-quality care in our region,” said Don Halliwill, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer for Carilion. “In the near future, Carilion will expand oncology care through a new, world-class Cancer Center, and this challenge serves to improve both the physical health and the economic health of our community.” 

The deadline to apply for the Advancing Oncology InnoVAtion QuickFire Challenge is August 11, 2023. Find more information about the program along and apply online on the Johnson & Johnson website

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