The Man With The Golden Touch: Jeff Williams Eyes Triple Crown Of Sorts With Life Magnetics

5/16/11Follow @xconomy

If Jeff Williams has brewed some sort of secret concoction to converting local startups into big pay days, he’s not letting on.

“You just make sure you develop good companies that people want to have,” the low key Williams tells Xconomy. “We were fortunate to have some nice exits.”

That may be the understatement of the year. For a region starving for success stories, Williams has already provided two of them: the $275 million sale of HandyLab to Becton Dickinson (BD) in 2009 and the $205 million sale of Accuri Cytometers to BD earlier this year. Both HandyLab and Accuri are University of Michigan spinouts.

Williams was also previously CEO of Genomic Solutions, a life science products company in Ann Arbor he co-founded in 1997. The company ultimately went public in 2000 and eventually merged with Harvard Biosciences two years later.

That makes Williams the near-consensus savior of Michigan’s high tech economy, with HandyLab, Accuri, and Genomic Solutions as Exhibits A, B, and C. Local boosters say Williams’ success is proof that the state best known for its declining auto industry is sharply turning the corner.

“Jeff is one of those rare individuals who brings the whole package to the table as an early-stage CEO—very smart, driven, understands technology, strategy, how to manage a growing company, how to work with investors, and how to exit,” says Tim Peterson, managing director of Arboretum Ventures, which funded both Accuri and HandyLab. “We are very lucky to have him here in Michigan.”

Not that Williams is screaming for adulation.

“I try not to pay too much attention to that stuff,” he says.

Don’t worry Jeff. I’ll do that for you.

In truth, Williams is one third of a team that seems to have a found a winning formula: the U-M spins out a medical company, Arboretum finances it, and Williams leads it. The triumvirate provides much needed consistency and mass to a fragmented state that often struggles to attract the attention of outside investors and buyers of anything other than automobiles. In fact, Arboretum recently recruited Williams to run another U-M-bred startup, Life Magnetics.

“If there’s anything to the system, it’s that Arboretum and I get along very well,” Williams says. “We both gravitate towards good companies. We’re definitely seeing that with Arboretum, that it has become a premiere venture capital firm in the country.”

“The U-M has certainly gotten very good at backing companies spun out of the university,” he continues. “You hate to see all of that technology go to waste… It’s good to show that our technologies can be developed to a stage that they can be acquired.”

It certainly helps that Arboretum and the university can turn to a serial entrepreneur with a proven track record, a commodity that’s hard find in Michigan. In fact, Williams and Jennifer Baird, Williams’ predecessor at Accuri Cytometers who now leads Accio Energy, were often cited as those A-List entrepreneurs at the Michigan Growth Capital Symposium last week.

“It really comes down to the people,” says Jim Adox, managing director of Venture Investors in Ann Arbor, MI, which backed HandyLab. “Intellectual property used to be at the top but now I ask, who are the people leading the company?”

Of course, there’s only so much of Jeff Williams to go around. So how does Williams chooses his projects?

“I wish I could do them all but I can’t,” Williams says. “I like to focus on opportunities that make a difference. I do like stories, when you are producing a product that’s much easier to use, a better, faster, cheaper business model.”

It’s fair to say that Williams excels in medical diagnostics. HandyLab, for instance, makes devices designed to help laboratories better detect bacterial infections. Accuri Cytometers’ cell counting machines enable doctors to more quickly diagnose diseases ranging from AIDS to cancer.

U-M startup Life Magnetics, Williams’ new employer, is developing a desktop diagnostic device that uses disposable cartridges to rapidly test bacterial infections. The device will determine how bacteria respond to antibiotics within eight hours of sample collection, the company says.

“It’s a big opportunity,” Williams says. “You can’t get enough days out of the process.”

Judging from Williams’ record, it would seem he and Arboretum have a built in buyer in BD. Not quite.

HandyLab already had a distribution agreement with BD so it made sense for BD to buy that company. But the Accuri deal was a complete coincidence, Williams says.

According to Williams, Accuri had been approached by a number of potential buyers. The company’s investment bankers then contacted BD, which eventually outbid the field for the startup. BD ultimately paid ten times Accuri’s annual revenue, more than double the premium a similar medical device firm would have normally commanded on the market.

Could BD make it three-fer with Life Magnetics?

“I would not envision Life Magnetics being sold for many years,” Williams says.

Still….

“All companies are for sale, it just depends on the price,” Williams says. “It would not be inconceivable [for BD to acquire Life Magnetics]. I’m sure we’ll have a conversation when the time comes.”

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