Lauren Williamson Places Second in Merck KGaA Innovation Cup

Lauren Williamson talks about her experience at the 2022 Merck KGaA Innovation Cup

Lauren Williamson, Ph.D., a staff scientist in the laboratory of James E. Crowe Jr., M.D., director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center, placed second in the 2022 Merck KGaA Innovation Cup as part of Team Autoimmunity.

The 2022 Merck KGaA Innovation cup took place between July 23-29 and hosted seven teams ranging from oncology, immunology, digital health and more. The teams worked to develop innovative ideas for unmet medical challenges and built a business case to pitch to industry executives. Of the over 3,500 applicants, Merck KGaA invited just 42 finalists to Frankfurt, Germany, for the competition.

As part of Team Autoimmunity, Williamson devised a method of stabilizing cell populations that play essential roles in autoimmune disorders through foxtags, an acronym created for this project. While Williamson is required to adhere to nondisclosure agreements, she was able to say that foxtags work with a variety of diseases rather than a single disorder.

Williamson said that participating in the competition was, “Very inspiring. Both the research and being able to work with a group of great scientists from around the world,” and that, “it really takes a diverse team to peruse great science and make new, innovative discoveries.”

Williamson joined Vanderbilt as part of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in 2015 and wrote her dissertation on the neutralization mechanisms of anti-alphavirus human monoclonal antibodies in the Crowe Lab.

Her current work focuses on virology and immunology. Williamson currently studies additional virus families such as picornaviruses.

She credits her experience at the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center for much of her success, stating, “my work focuses not just on publications but also moving things into the clinic. Knowing what the industry is looking for in a product made a major difference.”

As part of the runner-up team, Williamson was awarded 5,000 euros (approximately $5,100 at the time) and the chance for her project to be considered as a future Merck KGaA product.