By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
In his earlier days, Ira Weiss, who now calls Chattanooga home, was involved with UCSD CONNECT, a nationally-recognized initiative that has helped grow the California city into a recognized epicenter for life science start-ups. Today, CONNECT’s Springboard program is the basis on which the two Tennessee mentor networks have been built. Both are financially supported by Launch Tennessee.
For the energetic Weiss, being a Mentor to young, promising companies is a continuation of what he started decades ago in San Diego after he gave-up the idea of being the next Arnold Palmer.
“I was one of those who could crossover from business to science,” Weiss said about his involvement with the CONNECT program while serving on the staff of the Scripps Research Institute. He joined the world-famous organization in 1978 without a science background, but quickly assumed responsibility for administration/supervision of a lab division and managed two National Institutes of Health Program Project grants soon thereafter. His boss and mentor Thomas S. Edgington, an M.D., was a visionary that embraced his potential.
“We had brilliant scientists, but a challenge in spinning out technologies,” Weiss recalls of both his employer and the larger community. “We (the region) got really good at investing several million dollars in spinouts and quickly scaling them.”
Over a more than three-decade career, Weiss’ entrepreneurial endeavors have not been limited to just the life science or biotech sectors. For example, he and some partners moved into the Torrey Pines Research Park, founded Micro Business Solutions and Engreval Ltd. They built computer, software and communications networks before they became common.
After “cashing out” of that company in the early 1990s, Weiss returned to science working for Ivor Royston, M.D. at the San Diego Regional Cancer Center. Royston sold his first startup Hybritech to Eli Lilly for around $400M. Royston is considered the “Godfather” of San Diego Biotechnology who co-founded Forward Ventures, a San Diego firm that still invests in life science companies.
So, how did the Californian get to Tennessee?
“I came to Nashville on a fluke,” Weiss says. “I loved it.”
Over the past 20 years or so, he has served as Interim CEO/CFO for several companies, run special projects for CIGNA Medicare, controller for hedge funds, and been involved in several life science-related start-ups. The most recent is a company named BioDtech Inc. (BDTI) of which Weiss is a Co-Founder and current member of the Board of Directors.
The company is focused on the development of technologically-advanced products that detect, neutralize and remove endotoxin. BDTI’s customer base includes the bioresearch and bioprocess markets.
“We raised our angel dollars in Nashville, but could not raise our Series A there,” Weiss says. After meeting with Jim Hudson of the well-known HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, AL, BDTI raised its Series A and later Series B through the Birmingham Technology Fund, and the company is now located in the city’s Innovation Depot.
Weiss moved to Chattanooga seven years ago. He did not miss a beat when we asked him what he thought was the biggest challenge those in the mentoring programs face.
“It’s IP (intellectual property),” Weiss stated emphatically. “Their biggest stumbling block is not having a lock on it and not knowing how it works to their benefit.”
He says Entrepreneurs must know what they own (i.e., fields of use), the status of the patent, and extent of protection beyond the U.S.
“Don’t quibble on every detail, but know when to back away from a licensing deal,” Weiss says, adding that the ability to negotiate effectively extends to discussions with Venture Capitalists (VCs).
“Raising money is an art form,” he explains. “Veterans of previous deals with VCs are treated differently.”
Other areas for improvement that Weiss identified are the “operational side” – distribution, marketing and manufacturing – and an ability to quickly and succinctly state the value proposition for the technology behind a start-up.
“Charlie (Brock) and the Launch Tennessee team are doing a good job of getting VCs to the table,” Weiss observed. “We now have to get them to write checks. Emulating successful tech centers around the country will allow us to find the traction we need.”