Thane Kreiner, the Biotech-Entrepreneur-Turned-Educator With 1 Billion People on His Mind

8/25/11Follow @xconomy

Thane Kreiner, in the prime of his professional life at 50, could be doing pretty much whatever he wants in Silicon Valley’s biotech industry. But about a year ago, he took a job that offered him a big cut in salary, no stock options, and no performance bonuses.

The lure? The chance to help build businesses in the developing world with the potential to make a difference for 1 billion people.

“When I applied for this job, I went to the provost and said, ‘Look, I won’t give you new theories on how to change the world. I actually want to do it,” Kreiner says.

Kreiner has been pursuing this bold goal over the past year as the executive director of the Center for Science, Technology & Society at Santa Clara University, about 40 miles south of San Francisco. The signature program he’s been working on there, in its ninth year, recruits entrepreneurs from the developing world for an 8-month mentoring program to help them figure out how to turn an already good tech-based small business into a great big one. Ideally, Santa Clara wants to help amplify ideas for things like rural electrification or clean water, which could help hundreds of millions of people lift themselves out of poverty.

Plenty of people have caught the bug for social entrepreneurship, but few people come at this emerging field with a background like Kreiner’s. He’s got a Ph.D in neuroscience from Stanford University, plus a Stanford MBA. He spent almost 15 years rising through the ranks at Santa Clara, CA-based Affymetrix (NASDAQ: AFFX), the gene-chip pioneer. The last few years, he co-founded or served as CEO of four different leading-edge biotech startups, including San Francisco-based Second Genome, Seattle-based Presage Biosciences, and South San Francisco-based iPierian. With his network of contacts in the venture world, he easily could have done the next hot thing in stem cells, personalized medicine, cancer diagnostics, you name it.

Corey Goodman, the prominent biotech entrepreneur and longtime friend and mentor of Kreiner, said he’s keeping an eye on Kreiner’s new nonprofit endeavor. “It is a very important program, and Thane is the perfect person to lead it. He has the passion and ability to make it a success,” Goodman says.

The program at Santa Clara University goes back to 1997, and its signature program, the “Global Social Benefit Incubator” got its start in 2003, before many universities had sought to tap into the growing interest in social entrepreneurship, Kreiner says. The idea of the incubator is essentially to identify entrepreneurs with proven technologies, and proven business models, who need some mentorship to scale up their companies to make a bigger difference, Kreiner says. The program matches up about 20 of these entrepreneurs from around the world with Silicon Valley VCs and entrepreneurs who help the startups define their value proposition, define target market segments, etc., over the course of an 8-month program. The program culminates in a 2-week boot camp in August every year, in which the entrepreneurs make their pitch for additional capital in front of an audience of 300 people, and a panel of judges that provide “American Idol” style instant feedback.

Results, like in many socially minded nonprofits, can be pretty squishy and subjective, unlike the hard reality of an audited for-profit income statement. Still, the program has racked up … Next Page »

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  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/ltimmerman/ Luke Timmerman

    Just got this comment from Sue Siegel, a partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures, who worked with Kreiner at Affymetrix and now serves on his advisory board at Santa Clara University.

    “SCU’s Center for Science, Technology, and Society is benefitting from Thane’s leadership talents. As an experienced entrepreneur himself, he is applying his executive skills to drive and support the success of social entrepreneurs worldwide, particularly in developing countries, using tried and true Silicon Valley start-up techniques.”

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