Drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) just announced the winners of a new competition aimed at tapping promising academic research.

Two of the eight winners are based at universities in Pennsylvania.

"It's very exciting," said Penn State associate professor Sarah Ades. "It means I can do things that I can't do just on my own in my lab."

The GSK program partners academic researchers with their counterparts inside big pharma. Ades, for example, studies tough bacteria, like E. coli, and how they handle harsh conditions — be it inside mud puddles or intestinal tracts.

Her novel approach to fighting so-called gram-negative bacteria caught the attention of GSK officials. While the winning ideas are in the very early stages, they're said to have plenty of potential.

"The pie-in-the-sky benefit to humanity," said Ades of her research, "is we actually find ... a new antibiotic that can help [fight] the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria — since that's a huge problem facing public health."

GSK officials say the Discovery Fast Track competition is a novel approach to finding new drug candidates.

"This was our inaugural attempt at doing something a little bit different," said Pearl Huang, head of GSK's Discovery Partnerships with Academia (DPAc) team.

Some 142 entries were submitted from 70 universities across the United States and Canada. This was the first competition from DPAc to solicit applications.

Huang says the program fits within a larger industry trend that's seen more research and development outsourced by big pharma. But, she says, the DPAc program also uses company resources to advance academic research.

"It is a way to externalize, for sure," said Huang. "But it's also taking our strengths, taking the best of what GSK has to offer, and hopefully combining it with the best from the outside."

A researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, Rahul Kohli, will also be part of the GSK program. Work on the selected projects begins immediately.