A managing director at biotech seed fund Golden Pine Ventures (Research Triangle Park, N.C.), Ian J. Mehr, MBA '99, PhD, describes his job as " a ton of fun," noting that it's "very exciting to be at the cutting edge of the intersection of science and business." With a BS in microbiology (from the University of Illinois) and PhD in genetics (from Northwestern) plus an MBA (Johnson School), Mehr has the ideal background for a seed fund focusing on company inception in the life sciences.
"I feel have a natural head for business, which combined with my scientific background means I can speak both languages and bridge two relatively disparate worlds . . . which means I can have a large personal impact on the success of small bio-businesses," Mehr says. "Company formation is a delicate dance where so many things can result in abysmal failure. Mix that risk with the potential to create life-saving drugs, add in the unique personalities that populate this industry (founding scientists, biotech execs, VCs, I-bankers, etc.), and it's a recipe for one heck of a wild - and entertaining - ride."
Mehr started on the path to his current position after he realized that he wasn't cut out for the bench life. "I long had my eye on jobs in biotechnology or pharmaceuticals, but found during my PhD that, while I loved talking about and learning about the science, I didn't enjoy actually doing the science," says Mehr. "Upon learning that, I spent a great deal of time researching alternative career paths in the bio-sciences. I thought it would be great if I could find myself in a business capacity where I could remain close to bioscience research, but not be directly responsible for it."
After actively seeking out and consulting with other PhD grads who were in business school, Mehr decided an MBA would provide the best way to jump-start his career transition. "I was lucky enough to be accepted into Cornell's Twelve Month Option [now Accelerated MBA] program," he says. "The MBA degree was positively essential for my transition, as the education I received at [the Johnson School] provided me knowledge and tools I use on a daily basis."
Since graduating, Mehr has "worked in progressively smaller organizations," he says, "starting at the multi-billion dollar LabCorp where I wrote the business strategy for pharmacogenetic testing and eventually led the top-line of the $40 million genetic testing business, followed by a stint with a small-cap publicly traded biotechnology firm called Paradigm Genetics, and most recently with a spin-out of the University of North Carolina called Qualyst, Inc., where, as employee number six, I was responsible for all non-science aspects of the business, growing their revenues from zero to several million dollars and helping them raise three rounds of equity financing."
Below, Mehr talks about what fascinates him about biotechnology, why he finds his job fun and exciting, describes the most compelling and most frustrating aspects of his job, and discusses the issues affecting the biotechnology industry today.
What drew you to biotechnology?
Mehr: I'm drawn to biotechnology because, frankly, it's fascinating. The scientific advances that have occurred in my lifetime alone are astounding, and I love learning and understanding new discoveries and how they may eventually turn into new therapeutics or diagnostics, and therefore studying and capitalizing upon their potential to grow new businesses.
What is a typical day like for you at Golden Pine?
Mehr: At Golden Pine, our business encompasses uncovering exciting academic research, co-founding companies with the university faculty, financing those companies we establish with our seed fund, and actively managing those companies as the interim CEO, eventually raising money from institutional investors (primarily VCs) on behalf of the company, subsequently turning over the reins to a new executive team and doing it all over again. At any given time, one partner at GPV can handle about three portfolio companies, provided they are at different stages of maturity. This means on any typical day I play the following roles at least once per day: technical reviewer of primary scientific literature and intellectual property, salesman to university professors on Golden Pine's value, financier for biotechnology companies, CEO, and fundraiser. It's exhausting but a lot of fun.
Q. What's the most compelling aspect of your job? The most frustrating?
Mehr: What gets me up in the morning is knowing that there's a pretty good chance that I could be playing a pivotal role in creating a company that will bring a life-saving therapeutic to the market, and perhaps receive financial rewards in the process. I become most frustrated when I encounter faculty at universities where I am challenged to convince them of GPV's value. Some faculty believe they can successfully launch a bioscience company all by themselves; perhaps some can, but most cannot due to the complexities and resource demands (time, money, talent) necessary for success. When they try to go it alone, they will often doom their company (and as a result, their technology) to commercial failure. Considering that the technology could eventually save lives, that is a very frustrating experience.
Q. What key issues are affecting your field today?
Mehr: If we define my field as starting companies out of universities, the key issues are lack of resources at academic institutions and their environs to support faculty-founded companies. Academic spin-outs need time, money, and talent. Faculty members don't have enough time to address the administrative needs of a spin-out, and neither do the university technology transfer offices. Seed capital ($100,000-$500,000 investments) has dried up across the nation, which most spin-outs require in order to get their business operations going. And talented, experienced management that are willing to work for an un-capitalized spin-out are practically non-existent.
Fortunately, Golden Pine exists to address these key issues and successfully launch more bioscience spin-out companies.
Q. Are you affected by the decrease in research dollars that many academicians are speaking about today?
Mehr: Personally, no. However, every single professor I have spoken with - and that amounts to hundreds in the last year - has commented on this situation. Most are very concerned about the drying up of the NIH wells. It has the potential to severely affect the quality of science in this country in the coming years.