Never a Good Time? Just Do It!
This is the worst climate to launch a startup or secure funding in the biological sciences. It’s also the toughest time to find a job in the field.
“I’ve heard such sentiments every year of my professional career, but somehow things always keep advancing,” says David Mack, PhD ’92, Director of Alta Partners, a leading venture capital firm in life sciences that has funded more than 130 companies since it started in 1996. “My advice is to do what drives you and be confident that you’ll find a way through it all.”
Mack spoke about his experiences going from a University of Chicago Ph.D. student to a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist at an ARCH Venture Partners Innovation Workshop on Oct. 13, 2010. Sponsored by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship; the University of Chicago Biotechnology Association; and UChicagoTech, the University of Chicago’s Office of Technology and Intellectual Property, this workshop series is designed to bring together campus resources and the business community to foster dialogue and generate collaboration.
Mack calls his time as a Howard Hughes fellow in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology at the University of Chicago a turning point in his scientific training. “The experience gave me a breadth of knowledge and tools to understand a broad range of scientific disciplines in an intensely rigorous scientific environment, with access to great experimentalists and leaders in their fields,” he says. “This instilled in me a confidence to explore opportunities in areas I might not have direct training in, and allowed me to step outside of my comfort zone to participate in different types of scientific endeavors.”
Varied career led to venture capital
Mack’s career “zigzagged,” as he put it, along a multifaceted path, from conducting basic research and publishing, to patenting inventions and launching companies, to analyzing investment opportunities and serving on boards of biotechnology companies. “I’ve had the opportunity to work in many different aspects of drug development, which has enabled me to build up a big-picture understanding of the process,” Mack says.
His advice for researchers who think their ideas or technologies have commercial potential is to get connected. “It’s almost impossible to cold call a firm like Alta Partners,” which has over $2 billion under management and a $515 million dollar fund they are currently investing, he says. “You need to be networked into our circle of contacts to get our attention.”
The pharmaceutical products most likely to do that, Mack says, are ones that have completed some clinical proof-of-concept studies; have a clear path to regulatory approval; and will speak directly to genuine unmet medical needs.
“Today, venture capitalists are tending not to invest in early-funding opportunities,” he says. “Yes, that’s creating an innovation gap, so the funding pendulum will have to swing back. Be ready for that, remembering that the innovation pipeline is driven by academia.”
The key is to be multidisciplinary, says Mack, who has 24 U.S. patents to his name. “The requirements of great experimental science should never be compromised in the lab, but students should pursue — and faculty should encourage — interests outside of one’s specific area of study.
“A pure academic career is not suited for every graduate student or post-doc, but a great scientific foundation is,” he adds. “Those who end up working in venture capital will be able to share my joy in helping students, faculty, investors and others build companies and in getting true entrepreneurs to the goal line.”
By Greg Borzo
*UChicago Tech is now the Tech Commercialization team at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in recognition of a $50M gift from Michael Polsky in 2016 to expanded the Polsky Center in order to unify and enhance UChicago’s leading venture creation initiatives. Learn more about this transformational gift. >>