Start-up co-founded by UP alumnus Tommy Pham ’09, ’11 MBA, receives $225,000 national grant to assist in cancer research

A start-up company created by University of Portland alumnus Tommy Pham ’09, ’11 MBA, and his colleague James Stafford, currently a post-doctoral student at New York University, has received a competitive $225,000 grant to assist in cancer research. The grant is from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health. It is described as a Small Business Technology Transfer grant.

Pham earned his MBA and technology entrepreneurship certificate after participating in a joint program between University of Portland and Oregon Health & Sciences University. The program involved analyzing several OHSU technologies for commercial feasibility, one of which resulted in his start-up, called Nzumbe.

Nzumbe focuses on research designed to accelerate the discovery of breakthrough therapies in challenging diseases such as cancer.

“To accomplish this,” says Pham, “we focus on a root cause linked to many forms of cancer known as epigenetic gene silencing. When critical genes are silenced (e.g., tumor suppressor genes), a cancer cell can arise and grow to form a tumor that may spread throughout the body.”

To help describe the concept of gene silencing, Pham uses an analogy from the company’s scientific founder, Mitch Turker, of a car engine stalling and then shutting off.

“Clearly, it would be far easier to keep a car engine running by preventive maintenance, but a lot of cars are towed and then fixed (treated) after their engines die. The similarity between a dead engine and a silenced gene is that neither is really dead, sort of like a zombie, but instead can be restored to life with appropriate treatment.”

“The niche we look to fill is to identify drugs and other chemicals that can restore stable life to these zombie genes, and the unique nature of our company is that we have created a novel platform to accomplish the goal,” Pham says. “Hence we named our company Nzumbe, which means zombie in an Angolan dialect, to reflect our mission to develop a screening platform to identify drugs that will help stabilize reactivated tumor suppressor genes.”

In addition to heading up Nzumbe, Pham works for Nike as a Patent Liaison, where he helps identify and capture new innovation for the company based in Beaverton, Ore. He also spends his free time helping the Children’s Cancer Therapy Development Institute. CC-TDI is a non-profit research institute, based in Fort Collins, Colo., that focuses on finding new treatment and cures for pediatric cancer.

Prior to coming to UP, Pham was valedictorian at Benson Polytechnic High School in Portland. He attended University of Portland from 2004 through 2011 and was planning to attend medical school, majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry. At UP, he received two major scholarships – one from the Horatio Alger Association and two from the Ford Family Foundation — that covered most of his expenses. The Ford scholarship paid for about 90 percent of his undergraduate education and 80 percent of his MBA education. Up to 120 students from Oregon and Northern California receive the Ford Scholarship per year and about 100 students per year nationwide for the Horatio Alger Scholarship.

Pham was accepted into the University’s E-Scholars program, where he learned the value of networking and building relationships and “to think outside the box.” He participated in the University’s $16K Challenge as an undergraduate student and then the $100K Challenge as a graduate student at UP, where he received an investment from the Launch Pad fund.

“That’s where our idea of creating a company came to fruition,” he said of the $100K Challenge. The agreement with UP Launch Pad Committee resulted in $12,000 cash and $12,000 in-kind service. That allowed his team to launch Nzumbe, Inc. (in June 2012).

Pham has served as a mentor for the E-Scholars Program since 2011. He worked for three years at OHSU in the Office of Technology Transfer & Business Development, working with other team members to help OHSU break the records in number of agreements executed and in sponsored research money raised back in 2012.

In addition to receiving the NIH grant, Nzumbe has received several other funding: NCIIA (now known as Venture Well) E-Team Grant Awardee (July 2012) – $19,000; OTRADI Innovation and Commercialization Grant Fund Recipient (July 2013) – $30,000; PDC University Start-up commercialization Grant Recipient (November 2013) – $30,000.

Contact: John Furey, Joe Kuffner
University of Portland News


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