By Jim Cardelli, Ph.D., CEO and Founder, Segue Therapeutics LLC
There is a lyric from an old Bob Seger song in which the aging songwriter, lamenting the loss of his youthful prowess once filled with vim and vigor, wonders where the time went (“20 years now; where’d they go; 20 years; I don’t know”). For me, 30 years had gone by and I was still a faculty member at a medical school at the end of 2015; I too thought about the passage of time and pondered the future. As a molecular biologist with research experience in oncology and microbiology who had trained over 30 students, published over 130 papers, and given over 1,000 lectures and seminars, I felt I was at a crossroads in my life. I was directing a drug discovery and development program, with a number of pending patents, yet I was acutely and sadly aware that I had not impacted one patient’s life or brought one drug to market. Why was this? What stopped me and others from doing this? Upon reflection, I believe there were two main reasons for this impasse.
First, like many universities in the United States, my school did not have the bandwidth or finances to support technology transfer and business development. The budget for Louisiana universities has been slashed over the last 10 years, accounting for most of this problem. Supporting reduced revenue as a national crisis, a recent report from the Brookings Institute states that only 16 percent of university technology transfer offices actually bring in more money than they spend, and this reflects the accomplishments of a handful of universities. Adding to the barriers of commercialization are the many regulatory issues facing faculty wanting to stay in academia and start a biotechnology company. Finally, startup companies require an inordinate amount of time to nurture, and many mid-career faculty are struggling to get (and keep) grant funding, pay their technicians, train students, give lectures, get tenure, and pay their mortgage while raising a family.
The second reason preventing many (myself included) from leaving the academic gilded cage is fear of the unknown. I had a great paying job and was well-respected; I had great colleagues and students, but I knew nothing about the business world. If I left my academic position to start a company, I would have no salary, and I knew the likelihood of a successful startup was small, so surely financial and personal disaster would befall me.
I do not remember the exact time it happened, but I do remember the date — October 18, 2015. As I pondered my retirement and the uncertain future I faced, an entrepreneurial spark engulfed me. I could do this, I reasoned. If I could earn a Ph.D. in molecular biology from a top university, run a successful laboratory for 30 years, direct a successful drug discovery program (with an ROI of 5 to 1), direct the basic and translational research program for our cancer center for 14 years, and deal with endless manuscript and grant rejections, I could retire and start a company.
LEAVING THE GILDED CAGE BEHIND
Thus, Segue Therapeutics LLC was launched in January 2016, followed by a launch of a subsidiary company, SegueTx-Pancreatic Cancer LLC. The former is a drugdiscovery platform with an emphasis on repurposed drugs, and the latter is an asset-centric company advancing a combination of repurposed drugs to treat pancreatic cancer. Repurposed drugs now make up 25 percent of the drug revenue market worldwide and include wellknown examples such as Viagra and thalidomide. Cost and time to market are reduced, and the overall risk of failure is smaller than for new chemical entities. There are of course hurdles that must be overcome to commercialize repurposed drugs, including IP issues, off-label prescriptions, and generics, but a variety of contract services is now available to guide development of these drugs along the 505(b)2 pathway.
Becoming an entrepreneur has been a truly amazing experience. I have been immersed in a world I knew existed (peering out often from inside the gilded cage), but I did not realize how empowering it could be. I eagerly learned business language as I had learned science as a graduate student. I wrote business plans, generated business models, put together pitch decks, learned what convertible notes were, made connections, and raised seed funding. My company is now funding research at the university drug discovery program I left behind, historically funded via SRAs (sponsored research agreements) from private companies; the circle is complete.
I was very fortunate in the timing of my retirement from the academic setting, since Shreveport, LA is now beginning to develop an entrepreneurial culture. First, the city hosts a competition called the Louisiana Startup Prize, started in 2014. SegueTx-Pancreatic Cancer entered and finished second to a great company from Pittsburgh, PA. In fact, there were over 100 company entrants, and the majority were from outside the state. Second, the Shreveport Entrepreneurial Accelerator Program (EAP) was launched in 2014 and provides services to help create an entrepreneurial ecosystem by analyzing the viability of products and ideas and matching them with informed investors. Third, the building I work in, InterTech 1, houses a collection of finance and business coaches and other entrepreneurs. The excitement is palpable, and I remember why this type of forward-looking, teambuilding culture is so enriching.
HELPING OTHERS LEAVE THE GILDED CAGE
It is now November 2016 as I compose this article while riding on a train from Shreveport to Chicago (my hometown), a trip that harkens to a time when transportation was more civilized. As I reflect on this journey, I realize that there are many young (and not so young) scientists who, like me, might want to take the road less traveled but sense the barriers that block their entry. I also recognize that there are many universities in Louisiana, and throughout the United States, that have accumulated valuable assets that lie fallow for lack of resources to commercialize them. Over the past few years I’ve also witnessed graduate students becoming increasingly interested in combining business and science. Unfortunately, most leave North Louisiana for lack of the appropriate business ecosystem, resulting in loss of human assets.
Having gained some acumen in business over this year, I recognized this problem might have a solution. So, we launched Segue Science Management (SSM), a privately-owned Louisiana service-based S-Corp company dedicated to improving economic development in Louisiana through science discovery, education, and commercial development. Our mission is to increase the public’s awareness of the importance of science in everyday affairs, while simultaneously facilitating public-to-private technology transfer, thus stimulating the outgrowth of biotechnology companies in the area.
Unlike many younger faculty, I was at a point in my career where I could easily start my companies and devote all my time to their growth. I had many years of experience in program management, a good retirement plan, and support from family. Therefore, the mission of SSM is to assist faculty who want to bridge the gap between academics and business by aiding them in business development. With an increase in biotechnology startups and the entrepreneurial culture that will continue to develop, Shreveport and North Louisiana will foster a new branding and will not simply be thought of as a little city near Texas where there are gambling boats and oil.
Perhaps most rewarding to me over this last year is the story of two of my last students who graduated with a Ph.D. They, like many of their peers, pondered an uncertain future where NIH funding rates remain unacceptably low and faculty positions are difficult to obtain with the glut of postdoctoral fellows. So, Dr. Alana Gray cofounded Segue Science Management and will act as President, and Dr. David Coleman co-founded Segue Science Labs where he will live his dream of running a research laboratory to discover and develop technologies that can be commercialized. As a huge bonus, North Louisiana retains young talent, and new biotechnology companies have started. Thus, a seed has formed that, with nurturing, will continue to grow.
Still, like Mr. Seger, I am amazed at how fast time does pass, but every day I wake up, I look forward to what the next couple of years will bring with regard to economic development and increased biotechnology companies along the I-20 corridor and in North Louisiana. Becoming an entrepreneur was one of the most liberating things I have ever done. I have a purpose-driven life again. So, as a scientist, if you can present an exciting seminar (like pitching in business), write a good manuscript/ grant (similar in many ways to writing a business plan), manage a laboratory (it is a small business in many ways), coach people, and so on, you have the tools to start a company and have an impact on health and the economy. So, I encourage science students and faculty of all ages to frequently and intently examine the world outside the gilded cage – outside your comfort zone. You might be surprised to learn that the cage has no lock, and as President Roosevelt famously stated at the start of WWII, “we [you] have nothing to fear but fear itself.”