Stanford MBA student Joshua Yang is part of an international team of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars who won this year’s Merck Innovation Cup for an invention that could lead to treatments for cancer and other diseases. Team members received a cash prize and the opportunity to further develop their innovation.

Stanford GSB student Josh Yang is part of an international team of graduate students and postdocs who won this year’s Merck Innovation Cup. (Image credit: Courtesy Josh Yang)

Now in its 10th year, the week-long competition is for graduate students and postdocs from around the world who work in teams to develop innovative ideas with the potential to address unmet medical needs. Participants ­also develop business plans for bringing their designs to market.

“Throughout the competition, we received many pieces of constructive criticism and feedback from numerous parties within Merck, including the head of innovation, and knew we would be up against tough competition – 54 of the other top PhD and postdoc scientists in the world,” Yang said. “To have won against these other equally talented competitors was validation of our own talents as well as the real-world utility of our innovation.”

More than 2,000 people applied to compete in this year’s competition, and just 60 were accepted. Participants were grouped into 10 teams of six students and researchers. Yang was on the Drug Discovery Technologies team, which included students and postdocs from the University of California, Berkeley; Cambridge University; the Francis Crick Institute; Aarhus University; and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

The competition, which took place earlier this month, is usually held in Germany, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was held virtually. The time difference between Germany and California meant that Yang and his teammate at UC Berkeley had to wake up each day at 12:30 a.m. to compete.

Yang, center and right, and his teammates claimed the top prize at the Merck Innovation Cup. (Image credit: Courtesy Josh Yang)

The team was tasked with developing a scientific product with broad clinical potential and a viable business and operating model. Yang and his teammates’ winning design was a unique platform that identifies and produces novel protein degraders that could potentially treat cancer.

Yang explained that in many types of cancers, the cancer cells are able to multiply and overcome the body’s defenses because they increase the amount of specific proteins that are normally tightly regulated. While most cancer therapeutics have been based on molecules that inhibit proteins called enzymes, or that block proteins called receptors, the vast majority of proteins are neither enzymes nor receptors.

So Yang and his team developed a screening platform to develop a novel class of therapeutics that cause these specific proteins within a cell to be degraded by the cancer cell itself.

“Because we developed this as a platform approach, it can be used for many different types of cancers, such as breast cancer or pancreatic cancer, and for many different protein targets without the challenges of the highly manual, highly customized approach that is used today,” Yang said.

Their innovation also has the potential to be used as a treatment against neurodegeneration and immune system disorders.

Yang, whose background is in bioengineering and is now an MBA candidate at the Graduate School of Business, was responsible for analyzing the market for the product and its potential use in clinical settings.

After a week of developing the idea and then presenting it to judges, the team claimed the top prize of €20,000. They will also work with Merck to further develop their idea.

“We’re excited for this platform to become a reality and to help future patients,” Yang said.