John Hodnette (’15) part of Wake Forest graduate team selected as finalist for first Breast Cancer Startup Challenge

Group photo of WFU Breast Cancer Startup Challenge Team

WFU Breast Cancer Startup Challenge Team, from left, Andy Bowline, MBA student (2nd year); Alison Arter, Ph.D candidate; Kyle Murrah, Ph.D. candidate; Janel Suburu, Ph.D. candidate; John Hodnette, JD student (2nd year); and Gonzo Estupian, MBA student (2nd year).

John Hodnette (’15) is among a team of Wake Forest graduate students who have advanced to the finals of the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge. Now the team of students from the Wake Forest University Schools of Law, Business and Medicine and Wake Forest Innovations will put its unique business plan to take a clinically viable breast cancer treatment invention to market into action.

“I’m very honored to be part of this team of very intelligent and motivated young people,” said Hodnette, the team’s legal expert. “I think you should keep an eye on BeSpoke Therapeutics – we have the potential to go far, with the support of everyone at Wake Forest.”

In addition to Hodnette, the team features second-year MBA students Andy Bowline and Gonzalo Estupinan, and doctoral candidates Alison Arter, Kyle Murrah and Janel Suburu from the School of Medicine and Wake Forest Innovations.

The Breast Cancer Startup Challenge is the first business plan and startup challenge featuring inventions conceived and developed by scientists at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and Avon Foundation for Women grantees to accelerate commercialization. Teams of business, legal and medical/scientific students from top-ranked universities chose one of 10 inventions to bring to market.

Two hundred teams expressed an interest in joining the challenge and 46 teams were accepted to compete on a range of business plan possibilities. This team is the only one of five original Wake Forest teams to move forward in the challenge.

For the faculty advisers Stan Mandel, professor of practice at the School of Business; Steve Virgil, clinical professor at the School of Law; and Stephen Susalka, associate director, commercialization at Wake Forest Innovations; having five teams in the competition — more than any other institution — proves how ready Wake Forest students are to take on real-world challenges.

“Across the various campuses of Wake Forest we strive to provide real-world learning opportunities for our students,” Susalka said. “The thoughtful and efficient manner in which the School of Business, School of Law, School of Medicine and Wake Forest Innovations were able to quickly assemble a number of quality inter-disciplinary teams for this Breast Cancer Startup Challenge is a testament to our goal of preparing our students of today for the careers of tomorrow.”

Virgil added: “We too often focus on training our students on the discrete skills they need for their chosen profession, which is necessary but not enough to prepare them for a life in practice.  This competition allowed Wake Forest faculty to create a collaborative cross-disciplinary environment that looks more like the real world than a class room or lab.”

The team chose invention No. 7, which uses virus-like particles as a platform for efficient delivery of proteins and RNA.

“These technologies worked really well in the lab, but didn’t have the funding to make it to market. Our plan to create six small business units as part of our company, BeSpoke Therapeutics, will allow us to spread out the financial risk,” said team leader Estupinan. “Instead of taking one big bet, we are taking several smaller, less risky bets to fund the company, based on milestones the technology needs to achieve. That will hasten the timeline to bring our product to market.”

The Center for Advancing Innovation (CAI), the Avon Foundation and NCI, part of the National Institutes of Health, announced the 10 winners and finalists at a news conference on March 5. The event can be viewed via a live webcast at

“Today, progress in breast cancer research depends on step-change advances in technology and on paradigm-shifting strategies to rapidly bring these advances to market so they can be used by scientists and physician,” said Rosemarie Truman, founder and CEO, CAI. “Thanks to the Avon Foundation and the National Cancer Institute, CAI has been able to identify potential breakthrough technologies that harness the intelligence, experience and creativity of the innovative thinkers in the challenge. The challenge has exceeded expectations and we are thrilled with the results.”

As finalists, the Wake Forest team will work with a mentor to further its business plan and work to bring new technology to market for breast cancer patients. The startup phase of the competition begins immediately. Teams will have until approximately mid-June to secure patents, seed funding and additional resources needed to develop their business.

“NCI has always had a strong interest in fostering young investigators and the fact that this challenge pairs each student team with entrepreneur-mentors to assist in the development of the business plans is another example of how we can bring new ideas and energy to cancer research,” said Douglas Lowy, M.D., NCI deputy director.

“It’s been a huge learning experience to participate in this challenge and collaborate with business students and law students on the business of science,” said Janel Suburu, a Ph.D. candidate in cancer biology at Wake Forest School of Medicine.

Marc Hurlbert, Ph.D. executive director, Avon Foundation for Women, said they are looking forward to start-ups launching around these inventions to accelerate breast cancer research and break the mold of how research is funded.

“This new approach, through our partnership with NCI and CAI, will help translate promising inventions from the academic laboratory to development and commercialization, and ultimately benefit breast cancer patients.”