Rady Alumnus Wins Young President’s Competition at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

By Mario C. Aguilera, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Alumus with YPO check

The vast diversity of natural sources, or compounds, housed at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego hold immeasurable potential for biomedical applications. Extracted by Scripps researchers on diving expeditions, the compounds carry the hope that one day their molecular makeup could lead to drugs to treat diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and various forms of cancer.

George Nicola (MBA ’09) also sees great potential in the natural compound collection, but from a different viewpoint. A recent MBA graduate from the Rady School of Management and a postdoctoral scholar at the UCSD Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Nicola, along with Scripps Oceanography and Skaggs Professor Bill Gerwick, believe the potential of the marine sources could be maximized by being organized and catalogued in a “natural compound library” at Scripps, in conjunction with the Skaggs School of Pharmacy.

“Currently, this collection is completely inaccessible to drug companies; the traditional route of patenting and licensing one compound at a time is the preferred method,” said Nicola. “We are seeking to build an avenue that will bring this vast collection of natural compounds into a suitable format the drug companies can screen.”

Such a liaison between the university and outside pharmaceutical companies holds a potentially massive revenue stream for the university, Nicola says. Part of the revenue could go to the governments where the sources were collected, supporting efforts to protect and preserve natural marine resources for the future.

“The goal of this effort is to influence the sustainability of their ecological conditions,” said Nicola, who was introduced to the idea during his MBA education at the Rady School by his executive mentor, Steve Flaim, of the von Liebig Center at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

Not only do Nicola and Gerwick believe the idea has merit, but so do more than 75 of San Diego’s leading CEOs and other business leaders. The idea recently took first place in a science-meets-business competition jointly organized by Scripps Oceanography and the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), a global business education and networking association.

In a unique competition intended to blend the business acumen of YPO with Scripps’ scientific leadership, students, faculty and staff at Scripps were challenged with coming up with ideas (presented in short, YouTube-style videos) that address global ecological and environmental issues. The goal was to foster ties between scientists and business leaders in support of scientific research.

“Scripps-YPO Innovation Challenge” workshops were held at Scripps to determine which of three finalists would prevail. Groups of 50 YPO invitees worked with each of the finalist teams to construct a basic business plan around each research theme. The final presentations were judged via a Web-based platform, allowing YPO attendees to text message their votes.

In winning the $10,000 cash prize, Nicola’s project beat out stiff competition posed by a group looking to develop biodegradable plastics from algae and another working on aerial ocean imaging.

“I am tremendously grateful to YPO for recognizing this business opportunity and awarding us this prize,” said Nicola. “This will help take the project to the next step in realizing its full commercial potential.”