Slain Biotech Investor Leaves $1 Million to Support Entrepreneurship

1/11/12Follow @bvbigelow

The San Diego members of Southern California’s Tech Coast Angels (TCA) have established a $1 million nonprofit foundation in the name of John G. Watson, the late San Diego life sciences executive and investor who was slain here almost two years ago.

In a touching afterward to the tragedy, TCA president Stephen Flaim tells me that Watson left a $1 million gift to set up some kind of fund that would support entrepreneurs and startup activities in San Diego. “The foundation is based on this endowment,” Flaim says. “We’ve put the money under management and hope to solicit additional contributions. We want the fund to grow.”

Watson, a retired pharmaceutical executive, was active in San Diego’s network of angel investors and was overseeing plans for the group’s “Quick Pitch” competition for the second consecutive year when he died. Two TCA members discovered Watson’s body in his La Jolla townhome on June 8, 2010, after he failed to show for a regular TCA board meeting at the UC San Diego faculty club.

Kent Thomas Keigwin, a local investment adviser who was charged in Watson’s death, was convicted by a San Diego jury two months ago of first-degree murder, identity theft, attempted grand theft of personal property, burglary, and forgery. The prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Sharla Evert, argued that Keigwin used a stun gun to immobilize Watson and strangled him. She told jurors that Keigwin used Watson’s personal information to impersonate him and had transferred $8.9 million from Watson’s personal accounts at the time he was arrested. Keigwin’s sentencing is scheduled for later this month.

In a statement from the TCA, Watson’s sister, Gillian Ison, says, “John loved investing, innovation, and the entrepreneurial spirit that he discovered when he arrived in San Diego. We believe that a foundation supporting entrepreneurism is the best way to honor his memory and his life.”

A native of the United Kingdom, Watson graduated from Cambridge University with a bachelor of science degree in economics before coming to the United States to study as a Fulbright Scholar at Indiana University. He earned a master’s degree in marketing and finance, and spent much of his career with major chemical and pharmaceutical companies. He worked in various marketing, managerial, and executive positions at Dow Chemical, Johnson & Johnson, Wyeth Laboratories, and ICN Pharmaceuticals, before joining Vestar (later known as NeXstar Pharmaceuticals) as chief operating officer. He served in the same capacity at Minnesota-based GalaGen before arriving in San Diego as the CEO of Ionian Technologies, a diagnostics startup founded in 2000.

Watson joined the TCA shortly after retiring in 2008, and he was elected to the San Diego board of directors the following year.

Flaim says funds from the Watson Foundation will be used to provide cash prizes to winners of the TCA’s annual Quick Pitch event, a selection process that culminates with finalists’ presentations during a public competition that’s usually held in early October. “John was really passionate about the Quick Pitch event,” Flaim says. “He ran it for a year and was all set to run it for the second year when he died.”

The TCA has not yet decided how much prize money will be awarded in this year’s Quick Pitch contest, which has never previously provided cash awards, Flaim says. The TCA also is considering other ways the fund could be used, such as providing scholarships for entrepreneurial MBA students. “This is probably the first foundation set up to support entrepreneurship in San Diego,” Flaim says, and the angel investment group is still trying to decide how best to use it.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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