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Entrepreneurs in life sciences offer their advice for starting and building startups

From top to bottom: A-Alpha Bio CEO David Younger, UW Medicine surgeon Christopher Allan, Apertur CEO Robin Alfieri, Anavasi Diagnostics cofounder Barry Lutz and Ingrid Swanson Pultz former CEO PvP Biologics (A-Alpha Bio & UW Photos

Recently, the University of Washington hosted five entrepreneurs for a discussion about what it takes in order to start a life science company.

Panelists spoke about how they were able to get a foothold and what they’ve learned.

The panel was moderated by Teddy Johnson, director of technology development at the UW’s Institute of Translational Health Sciences. ITHS hosted this event together with WE-REACH to support UW startup companies as part their Innovation Symposium in September. The panel offered advice and highlights.

Barry Lutz Being your greatest critic Searching for vendors

Anavasis test system
Anavasi’s test system. (Anavasi Image)

Anavasi Diagnostics was co-founded by Lutz. They are developing fast tests for COVID-19, and other diseases.

Advice: Lutz warns entrepreneurs to not lose the academic self-regard that is more common in academia.

“We go around advocating for our technologies all the time,” said Lutz, a UW associate professor of bioengineering. “But being self-critical is really important. You have to be able to go back to the home base and be your own biggest critic.”

Lutz advises startup companies to plan well in advance about how they will arrange parts and reagents. This can also be time-consuming.

Robin Alfieri – Knowing when something is available

Alfieri serves as CEO at Apertur. Apertur is an emerging UW spinout, developing smartphones-linked devices for endoscopy.

Advice: Alfieri stressed that the balance should be struck between the speed of medical research and its methodical pace.

Aflieri has worked previously in senior leadership positions at Microsoft. “Coming out of high tech, things move fast, and they don’t so much in healthcare,” said Alfieri. “I found myself sort of trapped in this world of ‘is it good enough? Did we solve what was needed?’”

“I realized ‘good enough is good enough’ and just move, right? Just move,” said Alfieri.

Ingrid Swanson Pultz – Finding a Champion

Pultz, the former chief executive officer and chief scientist of PvP biologics, an outgrowth of UW Institute for Protein Design.

Advice: PvP Biologics was launched in 2017 after finding a champion.

A company was working on a treatment for celiac, an enzyme that can break down gluten in the digestive system.

Tachi Yamada
Tadataka “Tachi” Yamada (@TachiYamada Photo)

Pultz said that the initial idea was not a result of any training in protein engineering. One advocate she eventually discovered was Tadataka Yamada (Tachi), a drug development pioneer and former chief medical officer and scientist at Takeda. Takeda became a partner with PvP Biologics and later purchased the company for $330 Million in 2020.

“Tachi was the kind of person where when he called people up and said, ‘You really need to take a look at this,’ they would really take a look at it,” said Pultz. “And that’s how we got through the door.”

Yamada passed away last year after a long career that included heading global health at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and leading R&D at GlaxoSmithKline.

Christopher Allan Realistic timeframes

Allan, who is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, is currently testing a positive pressure glove that can be used to treat hand injuries.

Advice: Allan advised patience.

“You don’t have as much money to work with as you think you do. Everything you think is going to take x time, it’s going to take 10x,” said Allan, a UW Medicine hand surgeon. “So you better pick something you really enjoy doing, because you’re going to be doing it a lot longer.”

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In 2019, key A-Alpha bio team members This five-year-old startup now employs 38 people. (A-Alpha Bio Photo)

David Younger Partnerships and Understanding the Customer

David Younger (A-Alpha Bio CEO) co-founded A.Alpha Bio in 2017 after completing his UW PhD at the Institute for Protein Design.

Advice: Investors can be wary of startups led by young scientist-entrepreneurs, but forging partnerships helped A-Alpha Bio pique their interest, said Younger.

After securing three partners in pharma, A-Alpha Bio secured $20 million of venture financing in September 2021.

Younger advises startup founders to speak with customers as early as possible to understand their needs. Younger believed that biopharmaceutical companies could benefit from A-Alpha Bio’s technology, which can detect millions of proteins-protein interactions. Younger realized that the right use case was to identify potential drugs that could interfere with these interactions.

After speaking with businesses, the startup decided to change gears. “We were able to pivot and find other applications where we really did really meet an industry need,” said Younger.

A-Alpha Bio has recently signed a contract with Bristol Myers Squibb in order to study the interactions of proteins and machinery that breaks them down. The data may be leveraged for the development of drugs called “molecular glues.”

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