August 2010

Starting Up a Startup

 

Leslie W. Chinn talks with Stephen Cary about starting up a biotech company and some of the resources available to fledgling start-ups. (Titled "From Aha! to Entrepreneur" in print version.)

 

Startups
Stephen Cary and Jamie Romero of Omniox in the QB3 Garage. Credit: Robin Hindery, UCSF.

For Stephen Cary, the most important realization of his graduate school career came when it nearly was all over. Late one night, he was working on his dissertation when he had his “aha!” moment.

Cary’s graduate work, conducted in Michael Marletta’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley, had focused on molecules that modulate nitric oxide signaling. An example is hemoglobin, which binds oxygen and carbon monoxide, as well as NO, through its heme group. Several decades ago, a number of government institutes and companies had attempted to develop hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers, or HBOCs, as substitutes for blood and for other therapeutic purposes. These attempts had failed for a variety of reasons, including toxicities that were likely related to the HBOCs’ interference with physiological NO signaling.

But Cary and his lab mates had been working on a novel oxygen-binding protein family— one that did not scavenge nitric oxide. This, Cary realized that night, was a technological breakthrough. “Our new protein family could be the answer for millions of patients that could benefit from novel therapeutic oxygen carriers,” Cary recalls.

The Lone Entrepreneur

Cary gathered his thoughts and presented them to Marletta and two postdoctoral fellows in Marletta’s lab— Elizabeth Boon and Jonathan Winger. The four ultimately would become the founders of Omniox, a company created to commercialize novel oxygen delivery technology based on their research at Berkeley. “Though we were four co-inventors, I was the lone entrepreneur,” says Cary. So, he shifted his focus from science to the intricacies of starting a business.

With the support from UC Berkeley’s Office of Technology Licensing and Stanford Research Institute International (whose PharmaSTART program helps academic researchers advance promising compounds past the discovery phase), Cary began to gain an understanding of, as he calls it, the “landscape of drug development.” The most important step, he realized, is to define one’s intellectual property, or IP. “In biotech, you live and die by the strengths of your IP agreement,” said Cary.

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