Hundreds of thousands of researchers around the world are working to improve life and address imminent threats to humanity. Often, the research ends up in the “Scientific valley of death” in the form of publications and patents that never see the light of the day.
Welcome to “Lab to Startup” a podcast aimed at showcasing the effort needed to translate lab research to startups. The show has two main goals: 1. Sharing the stories of those scientists and engineers who have successfully founded startups based on the research at university and national labs. 2. Highlighting the resources and tools needed to help those aspiring to launch startups in the deeptech space.
We also want this show to be a way to communicate those technology development stories to the general public (taxpayers funding the research) in the hope that they will continue to support such research and startups.
About the host
Naresh Sunkara, Ph.D. is a chemical biologist, entrepreneur and the founder and Executive Director of the Berkeley Postdoc Entrepreneurship Program at the University of California, Berkeley. He has been running this program for the past ten years that has helped graduate students and postdocs at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and at several other universities in the US.
He was previously a postdoc at UC Berkeley developing lipid nanoparticles for delivery of mRNA based drugs targeting viruses and cancers.
New Sun Road- A startup building technologies to provide energy (renewable energy) and internet access to remote and developing communities.
Jalel Sager, Ph.D. (CEO), Austin Cappon (Networks & hardware), and Jonathan Lee (Senior R&D Engineer) are the co-founders of a California based startup, New Sun Road (NSR). They develop cloud-based technology systems designed to distribute energy (clean technologies), and internet connectivity issues for off-grid communities around the world.
We talk about how New Sun Road originated from a class at UC Berkeley that led to the evolution of various products that now is able to provide renewable electricity and internet to several communities around the world for the first time in their lives. The founders share their experiences building NSR with grants, under extremely resource-limited geographical locations in Vietnam and Uganda; prioritizing technology development rather than taking on new projects; how grit, resourcefulness, and patience helped them persevere; about how important it is to be on the ground when you build this kind of a startup, even though it is hard; and the lessons learned from building NSR.
-New Sun Road
-Job Openings: https://newsunroad.com/careers/
- Problems being solved: Building distributed energy systems for clean technologies; provide internet and energy access to remote and developing communities
- Founders first met in a class at UC Berkeley
- Grants from the governments and UN catalyzed the initial research
- Started the company by building a microgrid in Vietnam
- A visit to the United Nation to receive an award led them to another project on a remote island in a fishing village in Uganda- lit up their main street with 20 connections!
- Guests talk about the ground reality of working in a resource limited village
- While off the shelf components helped them build the initial product (in one of the founder’s mon’s garage), the team had to pivot to building more robust hardware
- Working on the ground is super important while building a startup in this space. No alternative! Cannot build a startup working remotely
- Where do you start if you are trying to build a startup in an under-resourced country?
- You will get your butt kicked!
- Need grit and extreme planning, especially when you don’t have funding
- How do you get help on the ground in places like Uganda or Vietnam?
- Building something in a tough geographical location has to happen before a big partner like Microsoft can trust early stage founders
- CITRIS Foundry, a startup incubator at UC Berkeley was very helpful in terms of infrastructure to build and learning about startups
- Microsoft was an incredible partner that helped build the first systems and also with the pivot
-Microsoft initially provided a grant; develop software for control of remote power systems and microgrids; ultimately became an investor in New Sun Road
- Unconventional funding path- focused on generating revenue than trying to raise a lot of venture capital
- How they treat competition
- What scares them and keeps them on their toes?
- “Helping a community get electricity for the first time in their lives is extremely satisfying.”
Nitrase Therapeutics: Story of a scientist turned entrepreneur whose persistence led to the discovery of a new class of enzymes and potential therapeutics
Irene Griswold-Prenner, Ph.D., is the founder and CSO of Nitrase Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company deploying its unique NITROME platform to unlock the therapeutic potential of nitrases, a new class of enzymes discovered in-house that offer the promise of a pipeline of therapies against a broad variety of diseases. Their breakthrough discovery of the enzymatic nature of protein nitration by nitrases, as well as our understanding of their exquisitely selective and specific mechanism of action, enables the identification of novel and differentiated small molecule drugs that target the core biologic processes of many diseases, starting with Parkinson’s Disease.
We talk about the origin of Nitrase Therapeutics, unique insights that led to founding the startup, breakthrough discovery, past experiences, funding, teams that helped build successful ventures, latest Series A funds raised and lessons learnt in her journey as a scientist and entrepreneur.
Unique insight: Nitration, the addition of a nitro group to proteins was considered as just another chemical reaction. Irene from her own research long ago believed that the nitration is actually an enzyme mediated reaction and the startup idea was to identify the enzyme. responsible for nitration and drug it for therapeutic benefit. It was just an idea, a hypothesis that originated 18 years ago (2002), which gave her sleepless nights over the years that ultimately led to launching Nitrase Therapeutics in 2017.
- Trained as an oncologist but brought in Athena and then to Elan pharmaceuticals to study signals transductions that were going haywire in Parkinson's disease.
- Came across nitration and worked on a side project at Elan pharmaceuticals
- There will be naysayers and so did Irene, who talks about her coping mechanism and how the idea survived and got funded.
- Program Lead for iPierian's R&D Tau Program acquired by BMS for up to $725 million.
- Elan was sold to Perigo, from whom Irene and her partners were able to license and start Imago pharmaceuticals
- How does one approach a company to ask if you can license their preclinical programs that were about to be discontinued?
- Lessons learnt from working at pharma and biotech companies, and starting your own company
- Had a blast working with two other female co-founders
- San Francisco Bay Area still has the best people to work with-scientists or otherwise.
- Used to do everything from payroll to ordering at Imago. Moved to Trinet at Nitrase
- Seed money came from Caspar, Wyoming, in spite of having VC connections in her previous life (contacted about 40-50 VCs, who expressed interest but gave no money).
- Money came from non-biotech investors in the middle of Wyoming, because they believed in Irene and the idea
- Fund raising had very clear milestones
- It took 8 months of grueling work to identify the first nitrase- an idea translated to reality!
- Every gene in the human genome has been discovered but we are yet to grasp their functions completely- far from it. Experts behave as if they do know it all!
- Recruited the first team two members: One had the best hands in experimental techniques and the other that helped with protein purifications
- Raised Series A of $45M
- Brought in investors that could help Irene
- Clear from the beginning that she was going to bring in an external CEO when the time was right. It was important that the company does well.
- Naysayers probably thought- "How did you come up with the idea if I couldn't". Just show the data and don't bother too much
Scalmibio: An oncology biotech (antibody prodrugs) startup from idea to exit that originated from the founder's own fight with cancer
Summary: Marija Vrljic, Ph.D., is the co-founder and CEO of Scalmibio, an early-stage biotechnology startup that developed a transformational technology focused on oncology applications. We talk about the inspiration for launching the startup, how she was able to bootstrap the company, raised non-dilutive funds which ultimately led to being acquired in October, 2020.
- ScalmiBio is a startup that was born when Marija was diagnosed with thyroid cancer
- Technology: Antibody prodrugs that could target only cancer tissues and remain inactive around healthy tissues.
- Startup was based on unique insights (around protein folding and publicly available protein databases) that came from deep understanding of work during graduate and postdoctoral research.
- Founding story
- Bar for founding a startup for scientists with data packages from their research is much lower. In terms of fundability- In vivo model as a proof of concept seems to be more fundable for life sciences startups.
- SBIR/STTR funding
Small Business Transition Grant For Early Career Scientist:
NCI SBIR Concept Award
NCI SBIR writing assistance program: https://sbir.cancer.gov/programseducation/aap?cid=eb_govdel
- Writing out a grant gives clarity and helps builds a business case
- The whole scientific field would say that the technology might not work because there was not enough data
- Talking to folks (once you filed provisional patent) in the industry usually helps entrepreneurs understand potential issues on both the technology and business fronts.
- You need to have a lead product before talking about platform plays
- Raising VC funds to take a product to the market might not always be the fastest way. Working as a part of a bigger company with the right resources
- Recruited by Pat Brown as one of the first scientists to work at Impossible Foods
- Understanding the concept of scaling and costs/pricing is super important as you embark on the startup journey
- It is hard to stay competitive- You have to move fast and get better results than the competition
- Network with engineers, law students, MBA students and others while in grad school/postdoc- a valuable skill!
Email: Hunter McDaniel- firstname.lastname@example.org
Enabling Awesome through MBC Biolabs, Mission Bio Capital & Mission Bay Capital
Douglas Crawford, Ph.D., is the General Manager of MBC Biolabs, Managing Partner of Mission BioCapital, a VC fund investing in life sciences startups at the seed and Series A stages. We talk about the facilities that help scientists at MBC Biolabs, how to get accepted to the labs, partners, golden tickets and stories of startups; funding hypothesis, the impact, and investment criteria to get funded.
MBC Biolabs Mission Bay Capital
- Started with a realization that nothing that is discovered in a lab at a university by itself cannot benefit a patient without a company in between.
- Startups are the most efficient engines to turn an idea into something very practical and useful for society.
- Experiment: If we provide a Minimum Viable Space to a scientist, could they do something catalytic to their idea or project?
- In the mid 2000's, 100% of VCs in the Silicon Valley said that it is a terrible idea to start a life sciences incubator. They said a biotech incubator will be like an ICU for startups.
- Biotech companies don't have market risk- They mostly have technical risk.
- The startups that incubated at MBC Biolabs (since 2013) raised over $10 Billion, brought 54 programs to the clinic, 13 approved diagnostics, and 71 products to market.
- Selection criteria to get accepted to MBC Biolabs.
- If a scientist was lucky to be funded by a VC in the mid 2000's, she/he would have spent about 6-12 months getting their lab up and running, which was fixed by incubators like MBC Biolabs.
- Incubators give an opportunity for scientists to prove themselves.
- Strategic advice isn't very popular with life sciences entrepreneurs. They are mostly looking for technical validation.
- Different definition of pivot.
- Golden Tickets
- Origin story of Mission Bay Capital- How Jack Wadsworth, Honorary Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and Advisory Director of Morgan Stanley globally. encouraged them to raise a fund to invest in startups Doug and his team were incubating. The fund evolved into Mission Bio Capital.
- Invest in therapeutics (70%), diagnostics, medical devices, and food.
- How they look at risks and insights, and how they invest.
- Checkout stories of Caribou Biosciences- Jennifer Doudna & Rachel Haurwitz; Alector- Arnon Rosenthal, Ph.D.
- Nitrase Therapeutics- Irene Griswold-Prenner. Story of how a whole new class of enzymes were identified
- Areas of interest for investment.
- Thoughts on ways the investment funds need to change.
- Book recommendations: Noise, Super forecasting
Rocket Fund- helping academic innovators in the cleantech and sustainability space turn their technologies into commercial realities through grants, mentoring and education.
Rocket Fund: https://rocketfund.caltech.edu/
Application process and background information: https://drive.google.com/file/d/19ubtkD1ziVeXqDChnL00gP6wDFWTsQGb/view?usp=sharing
- A program that has a way to introduce startups to decision makers at utility companies, who can help discuss their needs and adopt new technologies.
- They grant $25,000- 75,000 to startups that provide much needed support for designing prototypes, buying equipment, and getting certifications, which other grants don't cover. Prefer startups with TRL 5-7 based on Department of Energy guidelines.
- Program partners like IN2 Wells Fargo and Shell Game Changer offer $250,000 of in kind support that gives you access to technology advice from The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Access to their facilities; customer validation, etc.
- The other partnership is with the Electric Power Research Institute
- A new Technology Early Deployment (TED) program in collaboration with Southern California Edison (SCE)- Brings Rocket Fund companies access to program managers at SCE.
- Lessons learnt from successful and not so successful startups
- How scientists/engineers should move away from loving their technology and working towards market adoption (Inventions turning to innovations).
- Seed funding landscape for climate tech. Prime Movers lab, Department of Energy, Loan Programs Office
- Requirements to apply and focus areas for this granting period
- 20% of grants will be made to teams with diverse leadership
Designing hardware: "Idea to prototype"
Mark Brinkerhoff is the President of Fusion Design, a consultancy that has helped design over 1500 hardware products from concept to creation stages. We cover the concept of design, building the requirement documents (MRD, PRD), prototyping, iterations, costs and timelines for prototype development, stories of successful products developed and end with future of outsourcing and local sourcing.
Fusion Design: https://www.fusiondesigninc.com
- Products that don't succeed are generally technologies looking for applications
- Design starts with necessity followed by the idea that supports the need.
- Successful models- licensing out at the prototype stage or full development of the company
- Designing incremental vs first in class products
- Market requirement document (MRD) matures to Product requirements document (PRD)
- What makes a good requirements document?
- How to plan fundraising and timelines as you design a prototype?
- How to iterate and number of iterations you might go through? Iteration early/failing fast
- One of the greatest examples of market research was done by Toyota on the Prius.
- One foot in the past and one foot in the future might be a sweet spot to consider for product developers