The Entrepreneur Discussion Group: UCSF's Hothouse for New Technologies

Late last night in the lab, you had an epiphany. An idea came to you for a breakthrough life science technology that you're sure will cure some awful disease--and you're pretty sure you can make it work. In fact, you're so excited about it that you might just be willing to quit your day job and work on your new technology full-time. On the heels of your excitement, though, follows confusion. You're a doctor, not a businessperson. Is your idea original enough? Can you patent it? How? Will it make money? Do you have to do more experiments? How should you get started? What makes the difference between a hot new idea and a real biotech company? What do you do next?

If you're at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), you go to the next meeting of the Entrepreneurs Discussion Group ( EDG). Co-founded in 2001 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) alum Peter Mui and UCSF's K.T. Moortgat, and now directed by Mui and myself, EDG provides an informal, nonthreatening environment where ultraearly-stage entrepreneurs can pitch their ideas and get useful feedback from both the scientific community and industry professionals.

Our format is simple. Presentations are short, informal, and last less than a half-hour. Typically they are pitched without graphics or visual aids. (An informal group rule is that EDG is a "No-PowerPoint" zone.) Anyone who can talk about their idea in a simple format, for at least 10 minutes, is welcome to present. Halfway through the meeting we introduce everyone in the group and do announcements, because some always come late and some always leave early. Introductions are important because they break the ice, and because they encourage people to stay and talk to each other afterward. The second half of the hour is set aside for a different presentation or for discussion. The formal meeting adjourns after 1 hour, but we often get enough interest in the presentations that people stick around for a while.

In general, we try to set up the format to maximize efficient throughput of ideas, cross-pollination between members, and the social cohesion of the group. For many people, the incentive to come is the diverse types of people they can meet. Over the year that EDG has been running, attendees have included interested graduate students, postdocs, and faculty (with or without technology ideas), MBA students, venture capitalists, biotech executives, and potential angel investors. EDG is open to anyone. We believe that once an idea gets to a certain point it needs resources beyond those available to the people internal to the university campus; a larger goal of EDG is therefore to create an extended family of resources outside UCSF for EDG participants.

People come not only to meet others with similar entrepreneurial interests, but also to hear presentations on a wide variety of topics. "I've always been interested in the aspects of bridging business and academic science," says Carl Co, a UCSF graduate student who recently attended EDG for the first time. "I met a very diverse group of people ... from different backgrounds but with the common goal and interest in discussing potential ideas. These included both UCSF personnel and outsiders who had started companies, consultants, engineers, physicians, and researchers."

Our only subject rule is that topics must be of interest to the group, as loosely defined by the moderators. Because EDG takes place at a university with an emphasis on life science and medicine, most of the ideas presented are in those areas. However, presenting ideas from other disciplines also stimulates the imaginations of the assembled attendees. Although we also permit the presentation of an occasional nonscience idea, such as a recent presentation on fashionable nursing apparel, in practice we will hear talks on basic science, early- or late-stage technology, or pure business. One meeting will focus on critically reading executive summaries from real business plans. Another will discuss a nonprofit group devoted to the interface of nanotechnology and biotechnology. And a third will hear a presentation on innovative methods of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy being developed at UCSF.

Perhaps the most important networking happens outside the scheduled meeting. We encourage participants to stay afterward, to work on and move forward ideas. Ideas are presented again at subsequent meetings, both to keep the rest of us apprised of progress and for the group's comments and feedback. Many of these ideas are entered in business plan competitions. Last year we had four ideas make it to the finals of the UC Berkeley and MIT business plan competitions.

Although we dream of saturating national business plan competitions with UCSF-based biotech ideas, that is not our exclusive focus. Some teams or ideas that don't do particularly well in the competition format still lead to successful companies. That's the kind of entrepreneurial spirit we try to encourage.

"EDG ferrets out ideas from the laboratories and gives them a great initial opportunity to get developed and refined," says Mui. Mui comes with a strong university-based entrepreneurial pedigree, having previously founded both the MIT Entrepreneurs Club and the MIT 10K Business Plan Competition. Mui was recruited by the head of UCSF's Office of Industry and Research Development to assist in launching a series of entrepreneurial initiatives at UCSF and to help imbue UCSF's new Mission Bay Research Campus with an entrepreneurial spirit. A lifelong champion of fledgling scientists/engineers-cum-entrepreneurs, Mui devotes his time to helping them achieve their objectives, regardless of the scale of the endeavor. "While it'll never be a billion-dollar IPO," Mui says, "I'm happy to help, say, two doctors that want to manufacture a surgical device that saves 50 lives a year."

EDG is part of an umbrella organization called the UCSF Innovation Accelerator. Founded in fall 2000 by a small team of dedicated UCSF students, postdocs, and employees, the UCSF Innovation Accelerator sponsors a wide spectrum of events dedicated to encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit at UCSF. Lectures by prominent industry figures; organized mixers between UCSF scientists, business school students, and biotech professionals; and national business plan competitions all figure into the mix. The overall mission is to promote UCSF entrepreneurs by "establishing a network of Bay Area scientists and business professionals interested in life science entrepreneurship [and] helping entrepreneurs develop their innovative ideas into viable businesses." EDG fits into this mission by helping budding biotechnology companies take that crucial first step toward commercializing their technologies.

Since the biotech industry began in the early 1970s, UCSF ideas and scientists have been responsible for launching over 70 California biotechnology companies, including industry giants Genentech and Chiron. As we rush headlong into the 21st century, biotechnology has the potential to revolutionize the world as we know it and do enormous good. Our goal with EDG is to be on the forefront of this revolution, to nurture the entrepreneurial spirit, and to thereby amplify the process of biotech innovation for years to come.

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