A “Restart” for Entrepreneurship Programs at UCSF

11/19/12Follow @wroush

The University of California, San Francisco, is no stranger to commercialization of academic research. UCSF professor Herbert Boyer co-founded Genentech, the company that arguably kicked off the entire biotechnology revolution, back in 1976. In more recent years the life sciences-focused campus has continued to produce faculty-led spinoffs such as Intellikine, Calithera Biosciences, Principia Biopharma, and SeaChange Pharmaceuticals. It’s also home to the California Institute for Qualitative Biosciences, or QB3, which supports biotech entrepreneurs at UCSF, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Cruz, and also does some seed investing through its Mission Bay Capital operation.

Still, it takes a lot of time and money to get a life sciences venture off the ground, and for UCSF faculty, postdocs, and students who are new to entrepreneurship, it’s hard to know where to begin. Getting them oriented was part of the mission of the UCSF Center for BioEntrepreneurship, a division of the university’s Office of Research—but for the last couple of years the center has been largely inactive, as its previous director, Gail Schechter, left UCSF some time ago.

Now the center has a new leader, a new name, and an expanded agenda. When Stephanie Marrus, a 20-year veteran of the life sciences business, joined as director in March 2012 she says her first decision was to simplify the organization’smoniker—it’s now just the “Entrepreneurship Center at UCSF.” Next she organized a couple of new classes for aspiring entrepreneurs from inside and outside the UCSF community—and now she’s hoping to staff up, do some fundraising, and find a permanent physical space for the center on campus.

After years in leadership roles at Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX), Creative Biomolecules, and a Besssemer-funded MIT spinoff called Gel Sciences, Marrus (pictured above) has been busy recently as a turnaround consultant and interim executive inside distressed biotech companies. She says the consulting was good practice for her new role.

“It’s the perfect job because it lets me do all the things I love in the entrepreneurial world—creating programs, doing a restart of the center within UCSF, bringing in best practices from the valley, and adapting and translating thinking and techniques from outside the life sciences,” she says.

I had coffee with Marrus at UCSF’s Genentech Hall last week and asked her to lay out her thoughts about the center’s role and the best ways to encourage bottom-up entrepreneurship on campus. Here’s an edited version of our conversation

Xconomy: What was the state of the entrepreneurship center when you arrived at UCSF, and what are your main goals for it?

Stephanie Marrus: The center just hadn’t been active for the past couple of years. It was time to take a fresh look at everything and figure out what the community needs now in 2012 and how can we deliver the highest-quality programs. My goal is to make this the premier center for life science and healthcare entrepreneurship in the U.S., if not the world. So we’re starting with big eyes and a big appetite.

Our chancellor, Sue Desmond-Hellman, is very commercially focused. As you know, she was the president of Genentech, and there is a real appetite here to see the fruits of all this incredible intellectual capital that we have brought to the benefit of humankind. And the way to do that is to commercialize it and make it available. We want to change healthcare for the better. You can’t do that if you’re sitting in an academic environment and not talking with the commercial world.

X: Who are your customers, so to speak—the people you want to help directly?

SM: We are still feeling out what the answer is. What I would like to be, and what we are making progress doing, is touching all the elements of the campus. It could be faculty, it could be clinicians in the medical center, it could be scientific researchers, postdocs, PhD students. Last night we had event with the chairman of Life Science Angels, a major angel group in the valley, and when I asked who was in the audience—how many from the medical center and how many from industry—we had hands up in all of those categories. What I am hoping is that we can create a real community of entrepreneurial interest that includes industry, research, and medical. That diversity is the best way to facilitate the start of new things.

X: So it’s your hope to get new companies started?

SM: Certainly one goal is to facilitate the creation of new companies to bring UCSF technologies to market. Secondarily, we’re fostering entrepreneurial spirit. Having our students find other career paths that might be appealing to them in entrepreneurial companies or in large companies that want to take an entrepreneurial approach to their problems, that is great as well.

X: Are you seeing a grassroots pull for more resources or training in entrepreneurship from groups on campus?

SM: I am. I came in March, and my first question was, “Well, do people want entrepreneurship here?” And as I’ve held events and programs and courses and started a dialogue with many of the constituents here, I’ve discovered that yes, in fact, there’s a lot of interest, but people are sometimes lost. They have an idea or a technology and they’d like to think about starting a company but they just don’t know how to get from here to there. That is the service we can provide—we can teach them. We can give them access to a network, an ecosystem.

X: How do you think about the new center in relation to QB3? Of course QB3 has a broader mandate than just UCSF, but they are based at UCSF, and have done a great job stirring entrepreneurship across UCSF, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Cruz. What can the center bring to UCSF that it doesn’t already have?

SM: it’s great that we have more than one entrepreneurship asset. In fact, Stanford has 14 separate organizations focusing on entrepreneurship. Doug Crawford [QB3’s associate director] and I view our activities as synergistic. I don’t differentiate by stage of the venture. At times we overlap and we sometimes collaborate, such as bringing NCI to Campus to talk about grants, inviting the QB3 network to the Entrepreneurs Club, and encouraging teams from both to enter the Berkeley Startup Competition. The bottom line is that having more entrepreneurship programs and events is better, adding to the overall environment at UCSF.

X: What kinds of entrepreneurship courses are you organizing?

SM: The first course I created was called “Financing New Ventures” and 78 people signed up. So there is clearly a lot of interest. It was a five-week mini-course that brought in top-tier industry people to speak to all of the different financing challenges in the life sciences. That is a course we are going to expand this year into a full-semester course.

The next course was an intellectual property course, and it was taught by a top IP attorney from Fenwick & West named Michael Shuster. It was a very hands-on, experiential course and it got rave reviews.

We’re just about to gear up for “Idea to IPO,” our core entrepreneurship course that has been taught for a number of years. It’s led by Charlie Craik, a faculty member here, and Steve Burrill, the CEO of a major investing firm in the life sciences. They’ve been doing this course for a number of years, and people form teams and work on an idea which the end up pitching to a panel of investors. If people don’t have their own ideas, we will find some IP from our files and see if people are interested in working on that.

Something else that I’m excited about is that Steve Blank is going to be adapting his “Lean LaunchPad” course for the healthcare and life science world, and will start teaching that here in September.

X: Most startups spend a lot of time revising and rethinking their technology at the same time that they’re searching for a market. But I think universities sometimes have trouble commercializing their intellectual property because they see it as finished—they say “Here’s the technology, now just find us a market for it.” Do you think that’s changing?

SM: When you see an entrepreneurial idea in a classroom setting, say one of our entrepreneurship courses, it gets iterated. We send students out to talk to the marketplace, whatever that marketplace might be—it could be hospitals, it could be clinicians, it could be individual patients. There are lots of pivots that occur. So you try to get students to recognize that the technology is often a starting place, but you have to go out to the market to understand the value of that. You are not just sitting in a lab working on a technical concept without market feedback. So, I think we will be more effective in starting companies around technology once we have gone through that iterative market-facing process. At that point, does the technology need to mature to become what is needed by the market? Probably. But at least now there is a market focus.

X: Do you think Steve Blank’s methodology really works in the life science world? The reason it works so well in the information technology world is that if your product is just software, you can iterate relatively quickly and easily. That’s not so true in the life sciences.

SM: If anything, it’s especially important to apply the lean methodology in the life sciences, because the timelines are so much longer and you have invested so much more. You don’t want to get to the end and find out there wasn’t a demand. There are so many places to take your concept and test it out and see if it’s going to play in the marketplace. For example, if you have something that needs to be adopted by hospital purchasing, you have to sell not just to purchasing departments but to the thought leaders in the medical world who are going to champion you.

X: Will there be a physical place for the center on campus?

SM: I would love to have a center for the center. I think space is important. I started an entrepreneurship club to create an at least occasional salon where people can make connections. I would love to have a permanent salon where people could just drop in and network. That is going to require some funding, so I think we are going to have to initiate a development process. The intent is to find sponsorship—people who are interested in this world and would like to engage with the ecosystems. We expect that funding sources will want to participate to access this rich environment. We are currently bootstrapping like any startup and will demonstrate value that attracts sponsorships.

X: What’s the best way for people to initiate contact with the center?

SM: We have a website, which is under revision. We have mailing lists that we’re happy to add people to. I’m open and available to take phone calls and meetings. I’m here to help anyone who is interested in this agenda.

X: Do you ever look at Silicon Valley and feel a twinge of envy and think, wow, why, why is it so much harder to bring new things to market in the healthcare business? Why are there so few venture firms interested in life sciences anymore?

SM: The risks are higher and the time to reward is longer, but if you think about the bigger picture, which is how you can have an impact on society, building another app isn’t the answer. That’s why those of us in the life science world choose to be here—because what we do matters.

At the Life Science Angels event last night, Allan May said venture is dead for early stage life science ventures, and he listed a whole bunch of things that are being tried to fill in that space. We don’t have the new model completely figured out, but there are new entities playing, like foundations and consortia of pharmaceutical companies. Angel groups have picked up a lot of the slack.

And yes, it’s a tough game and success is not guaranteed, but we are trying to get people to set more modest goals, to accomplish more on less funding, and to provide their concepts to the point where their venture will be interesting to new financing sources or to a device or pharmaceutical company, which badly need new drugs in the pipeline. What these ventures need to be thinking about is how can they do the smallest possible proof of concept, because once you have that, pharma is going to look at you.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Valerie Bowling

    Kudos to University of California, San Francisco to assign resources dedicated to entrepreneurship in life sciences. This is where new life science innovation is going to come from.

    Valerie Bowling, Executive Director, The Conference Forum