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Scientists and business leaders tackle shared challenges at first-ever Chicago Microbiome Conference

What singular topic has the ability to unite researchers studying skin care, cancer, irritable bowel disease, and Alzheimer’s disease?  The microbiome  – the study of the bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that live in, on and around us.

However, microbiome research has such broad impact, it has begun to draw attention well beyond the research community, with entrepreneurs, investors, and established companies taking notice as well.

With interest in this area of research growing, the Microbiome Center and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation hosted a two-day conference on September 26-27 to foster connections between researchers and industry leaders working to translate microbiome research discoveries into commercial applications.

The Chicago Microbiome Conference attracted leading faculty from more than 15 departments and divisions at the University of Chicago and partner institutions.  Additionally, more than 45 companies and venture investment firms were in attendance, including some who spoke about their strategy for bringing new treatments, products and services to market.

Panel discussions and keynotes ranged in topic, covering everything from understanding models of cooperation, to the regulation of probiotics, and even emerging science and transformative tools.

In one session, Eugene Chang, the Martin Boyer Professor of Medicine, Section of Gastroenterology and Director of the Microbiome Medicine Program at the University of Chicago, presented research on whether peripartum antibiotics have an effect on the long-term risk for irritable bowel disease (IBD) in the genetically prone. After his presentation, he fielded questions from the audience. “I especially found the discussions very illuminating,” Dr. Chang remarked. “As a researcher, I don’t often have the opportunity to wrestle with some of the questions that our commercial partners raised, and I enjoyed the discussion prompted by their questions.”

Faculty leaders such as Dr. Chang, Jack Gilbert, faculty director of the Microbiome Center and Professor of Surgery, Cathryn Nagler, the Bunning Food Allergy Professor of Pathology, Medicine, and Pediatrics, and others lead diverse microbiome research programs and have started companies from microbiome research with help from the Polsky Center.

This innovative work on campus is also drawing attention from industry partners. Among the presenters at the conference was Chicago Booth alum Bob Kody, MBA ’05, leader of Lean Six Sigma and Operational Excellence for 3M’s Industrial Business Group. Kody remarked, “as a Booth grad, it was great to see the university supporting new businesses and products coming out of microbiome research at the University of Chicago.”

Through its diverse attendees, the conference also laid the groundwork for future collaborations and impactful connections. Denise Kelly, an investment advisor at Seventure, commented, “I am always on the lookout for new trends in microbiome research and businesses, and the Chicago Microbiome Conference was a very productive event for me. There were a lot of interesting science presentations and promising companies in attendance.” Seventure is a leading European venture capital firm that manages a $176 million microbiome-focused investment fund.

The conference’s unique combination of science talks, research tools, and industry strategy helped to set the stage for productive partnerships in the future. “Collaboration takes effort and we wanted to provide an opportunity for academic researchers, clinicians, industry scientists and business leads to learn from each other and to see each other as collaborators,” said Erin Lane, Executive Director of the Microbiome Center.

Getting access to people like Kelly and faculty like Chang is exactly why partners from Evelo Biosciences, AOBiome, and others traveled to Chicago to participate in this first Chicago Microbiome Conference.

“We are thrilled with how this first-ever event came together,” remarked Matt Martin, Microbiome Innovation and Ventures Lead at the Polsky Center. “The turnout was terrific with a great mix of people from different backgrounds.  We see it as an important indicator of the current appetite for microbiome science and translation, and plan to offer more events like this in the future.”

The conference was supported by the Polsky Center, the Microbiome Center, the Marine Biological Laboratory, and Argonne National Laboratory.

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