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The Entrepreneurial Bug


Whereas some budding entrepreneurs start a company so that they can be their own boss or get rich quick, scientists usually have a different motivation: to transform their research findings into products or services that help people. This is what motivated three academic researchers who talked with Science Careers about how they started their own businesses, and how other scientists can do the same.

Many academic institutions encourage researchers to commercialize their findings while maintaining their academic posts.

Starting a new business is not for everyone. The move involves financial risks, for you, for others, or for both. Budding entrepreneurs need to learn the language of finance, marketing, and business strategy. And it can be challenging to balance entrepreneurial activities--which can often be time-consuming--with continued academic responsibilities.

But the three entrepreneurs we interviewed didn't face these challenges alone, nor will most other researchers considering a business start-up. Many academic institutions encourage researchers to commercialize their findings while maintaining their academic posts. And if the experience of these three scientist-businesspeople is any guide, academic researchers can find support (including financing) in their own communities.

"Trust your partners."

(Courtesy, Cory Berkland)
Cory Berkland

Cory Berkland's interest in business developed during his graduate engineering studies and blossomed into two companies, within which he still plays an active role. While Berkland was working on his Ph.D. in chemical and biological engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, faculty members there started a company that incorporated Berkland's research on fabricating micro- and nanostructures from biodegradable polymers. That venture didn't succeed, but it "opened up my eyes to the possibility of starting a business," says Berkland, now an assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Kansas, Lawrence.

In March 2007, 4 years after earning his Ph.D., Berkland and biotech veteran George Laurence started Savara Pharmaceuticals, now headquartered in Austin, Texas.

The company applies Berkland's work making nanoscale particles to pharmaceuticals. Some drugs are better administered as a dry-powder inhalant than as a water-soluble compound, but controlling the size of the dry-powder particles has been difficult. Savara's technology, based on Berkland's research, provides control over the particles' size and prevents them from clumping together, making delivery of the drug more effective.

Last year, Berkland applied his micro-encapsulation technology to another enterprise, co-founded with entrepreneur Bo Fishback. That company, Orbis Biosciences in Kansas City, Kansas, is based on Berkland's research from the University of Illinois on processes to create microscale spheres and capsules with uniform properties. Orbis Biosciences applies these processes to a variety of manufacturing industries, such as cosmetics, food, and drugs.

Berkland relies on his business partners to run the day-to-day operations. He serves as scientific adviser to both Savara and Orbis. So far, Berkland says, his role with the companies has not conflicted with his academic duties. "The companies have been very complementary to my responsibilities as a professor," Berkland says, "and that's partially because the companies are both interested in publishing and bringing in grant money."

Berkland's experience with a business in graduate school exposed him early to the steps and effort needed to start a company, which include finding financial backing for the enterprise. He tells Science Careers in an e-mail that by the time he started Savara and Orbis, "I managed to find excellent partners," referring to the investors and entrepreneurs from the surrounding area who provided the companies' financial backing or became co-founders. "Trust your partners," Berkland adds, "they create opportunity that will shape the company and your research."

The Wallace H. Coulter Foundation was another source of support for Berkland: The foundation awarded him a 2-year Early Career Translational Research Award in Biomedical Engineering, which is offered to academic research with commercial potential. Berkland was one of 13 awardees in 2008.

Berkland urges researchers thinking about starting a business to get to know people in industry. "They're the ones who know the market; they're the ones exposed to the problems that the work is facing. And if we know those two things, as inventors, we can do our job."

"You have to believe in your technology."

(Courtesy, Guillermo Ameer/Northwestern University)
Guillermo Ameer

Like Berkland, Guillermo Ameer has entrepreneurial interests and an academic position--in Ameer's case, in bioengineering. An associate professor in Northwestern University's medical school in Chicago and its engineering school in Evanston, Illinois, Ameer studies properties of materials that can mimic human tissue, particularly materials that prevent rejection or scarring when implanted into humans. (Science Careers profiled Ameer in January 2004, highlighting the journey from his native Panama to Texas and eventually to his position at Northwestern.)

Ameer's company, Vesseltek BioMedical, started last year. It will produce medical devices for cardiac and circulatory patients who have a high risk of blood-vessel blockage. The first product is expected to be a synthetic blood-vessel graft with a coating that reduces clots and scarring.

Starting the company was a way for Ameer to ensure that his research wouldn't just go stale in journal articles. "I decided to do this because if I did not do it, it was likely the technology would go nowhere," he says. Ameer's sense of urgency stemmed from his desire to see his research lead to tangible products, but it was also motivated by the time limits on his patents. Ameer holds (with others) three U.S. patents issued between 2000 and 2006 and more in Europe. Several other patents are applied for or pending. "The technology was compelling, but at the same time, patents have a lifetime," he says. Developing products, taking them to market, and generating sales often require long lead times, so Ameer realized the clock was ticking on his 20-year patents.

There was a lot to do, Ameer notes. "I had to learn a lot about the business side of things." He called on associates from Northwestern to get Vesseltek BioMedical off the ground. In this enterprise, Ameer partners with a Northwestern colleague, Melina Kibbe, who has medical expertise, and a former student, Antonio Webb, who handles research and development. Ameer also founded and is still actively involved with another medical technology company, ProSorp BioTech.

His entrepreneurial activity "does take time" from his academic duties, Ameer says, but so far he has managed to balance the two. The university allows him one day each week for professional and business activities unrelated to his faculty post

Starting a business comes down to the degree of confidence you have in your research, Ameer says. But you still need a support structure to make it happen. Funding, of course, is vital. "You need to get a quick sense of whether or not this is the kind of project that will be able to attract funding from investors." Ameer had confidence enough his project met that threshold that he launched VesselTek before he had financing lined up.

"You have to have faith," Ameer says. "You have to believe in your technology and what you're trying to do."

"My goal: to have a job where I'm excited to do what I do every day."

(Quinn Kirkpatrick)
Chris Rogers

Christopher Rogers decided to make a clean break and leave the academic world behind when he co-founded Exemplar Genetics. The company provides porcine models of particular diseases, models that are used to develop gene-based treatments and drugs. As a postdoc at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City, Rogers used the pig model to better understand the genetic underpinnings of cystic fibrosis--research that earned him a first-author publication in Science in the 26 September 2008 issue (p. 1837).

Rogers designed a new set of processes and techniques to develop the porcine model of cystic fibrosis, but he soon realized those processes could have a much wider impact. "What we had done for the cystic fibrosis pigs was applicable to other diseases" for which the previous animal models were not sufficient, Rogers says. He saw both a research and a business opportunity. "Most university researchers are interested in a particular disease or a particular function," Rogers says. "We felt that since we would be targeting multiple diseases, it's best done outside the university."

That set of processes and techniques became the platform on which Rogers and his partners built Exemplar Genetics. They took full advantage of the services offered by the Iowa Centers for Enterprise on the University of Iowa campus, as well as those provided by the community and state.

The Centers for Enterprise helped get patents on Rogers's processes and "biological material" (the actual herd of pigs); the company licensed the gene-model technology from the university. In addition, the Centers for Enterprise put Rogers and his partners in touch with the Iowa Department of Economic Development, a state agency that helped find additional funding for the company. Exemplar Genetics found lab and office space in the university's BioVentures Center, a business incubator in nearby Coralville, that is part of the Centers for Enterprise.

Rogers decided to devote his full energies to Exemplar Genetics rather than dividing his time between an academic position and the company. He has few regrets. "It's very different from the academic track that I was on from graduate school to postdoc, but it's certainly been exciting and it's fun," says Rogers. "That's my goal: to have a job where I'm excited to do what I do every day."

Although Rogers's title is director of research and development, there are still plenty of business decisions and functions he needs to fulfill. "It's funny how my business vocabulary has increased, and that was completely unexpected," he says.

Rogers encourages academic researchers to consider the entrepreneurial option and to be honest about their motivations. "You need to want to do this because it is different from an academic environment, from a purely basic research environment," he says.

At the same time, Rogers says, academic researchers should be ready to recognize their own limitations and partner with colleagues who can bring other crucial expertise to the enterprise, adding, "People should do what they know and find other people to do the things they don't know."

Learning More About Entrepreneurship

According to the researchers interviewed for this article, before scientists start a business, they ought to learn at least the basics of how to turn their findings into products or services and market them. A good place to start is the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit foundation that exists to promote entrepreneurship, especially as an option for scientists. (Among the resources on its Entrepreneurship page is a short video by Bo Fishback, a co-founder of one of the companies described in this article.)

An important factor in commercializing research is the technology-transfer process. Most research universities have professional technology-transfer managers, but it pays for researchers to learn at least the basics of the process at the beginning so that they can guard their own interests and priorities, which are not always identical to those of the institution. The Association of University Technology Managers offers an overview of the technology-transfer process, with links to more resources on its Web site.

Patents for research findings are another important aspect of commercialization. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office offers an introduction to patents, including distinctions from other forms of intellectual property, such as trademarks.

To read more about scientific entrepreneurship and researchers who have taken the entrepreneurial plunge, read Peter Fiske's Opportunities series.

We'll see you at your IPO.

Alan Kotok is the managing editor of Science Careers.

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