The saying goes, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” In the case of UCSB Ph.D. alum Miguel de los Rios, the journey began with a single hand drawing.
Armed only with a vision, a simple sketch, some naivete and even a few aspirin, Ph.D. student De los Rios was able to found a biotech startup, Chimeros, that launched his successful career in the biotechnology industry.
De los Rios was one of three panelists, all grad alums, who shared their biotech career success stories in the May 16 kickoff of the Graduate Division’s Career Pathways series. This new series will give graduate students the opportunity to hear from graduate alumni about how they navigated the road to various types of careers. Future panel sessions will highlight careers in such areas as academia, industry, nonprofits and government, and all will focus on the skills that alumni found to be critical to their success.
In welcoming the panel and the more than 50 graduate students in attendance, Graduate Division Dean Carol Genetti expressed her hope that these events “will help all UCSB graduate students to realize the broad variety of opportunities that their graduate degrees are creating and the steps they can take to move forward in the direction that best fits their life goals.”
Dr. Pierre Wiltzius, the Susan and Bruce Worster Dean of Science and Professor of Physics, served as the moderator of the lunchtime discussion, which delved into such issues as the challenges and rewards of launching a startup; the qualities and traits important for success in biotech; and the differences in style and operation between a small startup and a large biotech or pharmaceutical firm.
The panelists were:
Miguel de Los Rios
Ph.D., 2005, Biophysical Chemistry, UCSB; B.S., Cell and Developmental Biology, 1998, UCSB
Vice President of Research, Senesco. Previously Vice President of Research and Development, Fabrus Inc. (On May 16, 2014, Fabrus became a wholly owned subsidiary of Senesco Technologies.) Sole founder in 2003 of Chimeros Inc., a venture-backed biologics therapeutic company (Chimeros was acquired by Fabrus in 2012.) At Chimeros, he was Chief Executive Officer and Chief Scientific Officer.
Ph.D., 2000, Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, UCSB; B.S., 1994, Biopsychology, UCSB
Senior Director, Business Development, Allergan. Previously, Vice President of Development and Director of Cell Biology, Chimeros.
Ph.D., 2004, Materials, UCSB; B.S., Chemistry-Material Science Engineering and minor in Mathematics, United States Air Force Academy.
Co-founder (with Patrick Dietzen and world-renowned UCSB material scientist and Professor Guillermo Bazan) and Director Dye Development, Sirigen. In fall 2012, BD (Beckton, Dickinson and Company) acquired Sirigen Group Limited.
Each panelist gave brief biographical introductions, explaining how they got to where they are today and sharing lessons learned on the journey, before answering questions.
Johnson told the audience that when he came to UCSB as an undergrad in 1990, he “had no clue what I even wanted to major in.” In 1994, he said, after three or four switches in his major, he earned an undergraduate degree in biopsychology. He fell into a master’s degree program after that because, he said, it was “the best of all my options at the time and I was able to advance my knowledge in my potential career opportunities by continuing my education.” He had a “great time” pursuing his master’s degree and transitioned from it to a Ph.D. program.
Don’t Feel Like You Have to Know What You Want to Do
But even after he earned his Ph.D., he wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do. “Don’t feel like you really ever should,” Johnson advised. “Sooner or later something will click and then hopefully you’ll follow that path.”
So Johnson stayed on at UCSB as a postdoc for several years, receiving a teaching fellowship and grant money.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s friend and fellow UCSB grad student, De los Rios, had an idea.
“The idea that I had had nothing to do with the work I was doing at UC Santa Barbara or with my Ph.D.,” De los Rios said. “There were no professors or projects running at the time at the campus who could help me develop the idea.”
His friend, Gaylord, had just finished his Ph.D. and started his own company, Sirigen, founded on research and work being done on campus. Gaylord encouraged De los Rios to pursue his dream. De los Rios put pen to paper, sketched out the idea, and set out to turn that idea into reality.
“I started to meet with everyone I could possibly meet in the community to talk about my idea,” De los Rios said.
He talked with high-tech investors, former Amgen employees, and angel investors; and attended investment conferences and venture capital meetings. Johnson was among those friends who also helped.
“My first real break was when I called up a Tier 1 venture capital firm,” De los Rios said in an interview after the panel session. He called Versant Ventures, which had previously been active in Santa Barbara. “So I think they were keen to talk to folks from UC Santa Barbara.”
“One of their more notable investments in Santa Barbara was Inogen,” De los Rios said.
Inogen is an oxygen therapy product company founded by three UCSB students, based on a winning idea that came out of the UCSB Technology Management Program’s business plan competition.
De los Rios met with Camille Samuels, managing director at Versant Ventures who recently left Versant to join Bay Area-based venture capital firm Venrock.
“She spent two hours with me at her office,” h said. “And she just tore me apart. The idea, everything. It was this eye-opening experience as far as what I needed to do, what I needed to learn before I could have a conversation with a VC [venture capitalist].”
‘Communication Is an Important Part of How You Drive Your Inner Visions’
De los Rios said he is thankful for the “hard, informative, constructive criticism” he received. “Most people can’t even get three minutes with a VC. And to have someone of her caliber spend two hours with me completely changed how I did everything.”
The conversation, he said, “shaped my pitch, how I approached investors, and it made me think about the future of the company and what things I needed to figure out. It basically gave me the tools to go forward and actually try to present the company in a feasible way.”
Another person who played a big role in helping De los Rios get started was Santa Barbara attorney David Lafitte of Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth. De los Rios said Lafitte “really didn’t understand everything I was talking about, but he liked how I said what I said.”
“He took a big risk and basically offered a line of credit to me” of about $150,000, De los Rios said. “What a fantastic mentor in those early years. I think that was another defining moment for what allowed Chimeros to launch.”
“Communication,” De los Rios said during the panel session, “is an important part of how you drive your inner visions and your life forward. So always be cognizant of how other people perceive what you’re saying.”
So what was De los Rios’ big idea? Here’s how he explained it to us: “We figured out how to make protein building blocks self-assemble into nanocages that are exactly 32 nanometers in diameter. While controlling that assembly process, we can encapsulate any drug payload of choice. When the protein nanocage is fully assembled, with the drug payload encapsulated, we can now decorate the surface with a variety of targeting molecules or peptides to direct the nanocage to organs or tissues of choice.”
Useful applications, he said, include oncology (such as prostate cancer) and metabolic disorders (diabetes; liver and kidney disorders).
Why the name Chimeros? De los Rios coined the name from “chimera,” a monstrous, fire-breathing creature in Greek mythology that has the parts of three animals — a lion, a snake and a goat.
“The idea was that all the parts come together for a unique organism,” De los Rios said. “In our case, we were making something called a ‘chimerasome,’” a term he created for the company’s technology.
As a grad student in those early startup days, De los Rios funded the company on a shoestring, using his monthly stipend of $1,200 to pay for such things as his grad student research, the experiments he conducted in his garage, and living expenses including his food, which consisted of a lot of Top Ramen.
“It was a very tough time,” said De los Rios, but he doesn’t regret it. He is also thankful to his advisor, Dr. Kevin Plaxco, for keeping him grounded and urging him to finish his Ph.D.
‘We Were Naïve; We Just Did What We Thought Was Right’
As young grad students and postdocs pursuing their dreams, “We just didn’t take no for answer,” Johnson said during the panel discussion. “We just did what we thought was right. We were naïve. Which is very helpful to be naïve. Because you don’t realize some of the challenges you’re up against.”
“So I encourage you not to let knowledge get in the way,” Johnson added to laughter from the audience.
At a certain point, Johnson said, he realized he had to “take a leap of faith.” Johnson, who was helping out Miguel with the startup, said he had “a nice, cushy position” as a postdoc at UCSB and could have stayed a long time.
But he finally made the decision to leave the position and join De los Rios’ startup full time. “You’ve got to balance the risk and the reward at the same time,” he said.
“We had a very fun time working for the company,” Johnson said. “It really was a very rewarding endeavor. We had no experience in the biotech industry.”
During his time at UCSB, Johnson took advantage of a course through the Technology Management Program that included biotech speakers. The goal was to have one person from each sector of the biotech industry come and talk every week for the entire academic year.
You Never Know Where Networking Will Lead You
Johnson said, “That’s how we got to meet Roy Hardiman [a UCSB alum and then an executive at Genentech], who has continued to engage with the campus.
“You never know where introductions are going to lead you,” said Johnson, adding that he was fortunate to meet a lot of these biotech individuals, including executives from Amgen.
“I finally got experience in the biotech industry through Miguel,” Johnson said. “We created our own experience. And then after that, it’s a little easier to meet people, to know what the industry’s like, to know what to do next. And then I was recruited out of our company to Allergan, where I’ve been for the last four years.”
Johnson worked on both the science side and the business side at Chimeros. “And now,” he said, “I’m all business at Allergan, where I look at new technologies, acquiring companies, bringing new therapeutics into the spectrum of our product offerings.” He’s currently doing all of that from an office in San Diego, where the company moved to stay competitive and to be in one of the big hubs of biotech activity.
Brent Gaylord took a different path to the biotech industry and the founding of Sirigen, one that started within UCSB.
“My graduate work here at UCSB was definitely a product of the interdisciplinary nature of the research that goes on,” said Gaylord, who worked with researchers from Physics to Chemistry to Biology.
Sirigen was founded by grad students Gaylord and Patrick Dietzen, and UCSB material scientist and Professor Guillermo Bazan. The company’s technology is based on Nobel Prize-winning research conducted by Professor Alan Heeger in conductive plastics and creates the potential for the development of novel dyes that are four to 100 times brighter than conventional dyes.
Sirigen is another success story for the TMP program. Dietzen and Gaylord won the business plan competition in 2003, founded the company shortly afterward, and licensed all the key intellectual property exclusively from UCSB.
“One thing that’s definitely clear: There’s technology and then there’s that commercial plan,” said Gaylord. “And I think sometimes as scientists, you don’t appreciate the value of having a clear business plan or commercialization plan. Because they’re two very different things and both are very important. But sometimes you tend to focus very much on the technology.”
“We built a support network,” he said. “And I think that is so critical – meeting other people who are doing the same thing.” The company partnered with the UCSB technology transfer office “because we had to ultimately license that technology back,” Gaylord said.
For Gaylord, launching a career with a startup “was definitely for me a career choice. Because at the time I had been offered a position at Dupont to do central research there. Do you take the classic job or do you create your own destiny and try something?” He made the decision: “Let’s give this thing a try.”
Nuggets of Knowledge from the Biotech Experts
Other advice, tips, perspectives, and reassurances from the panelists included:
» Get your elevator pitch down. You must be able to communicate your big picture idea when you arrive at the elevator with the president of the company. You’ve got 30 seconds.
» “Where you can take opportunities to present your research and talk and get in front of people, take every opportunity to do so.”
» “If you have a good idea, and you have a good plan, and you have the right people, I think there’s always a way to make it happen.”
» “You get told no a lot. It requires a lot of tenacity to keep going.”
» “Sometimes you look at startups as cool and glamorous things, but it’s hard work.”
» You’ve got to go where the jobs are. “The moral of this story is, ‘If you want to fish, go where the fish are.’”
» Other career avenues include patent attorneys (“very much in high demand”); communications; and investor relations. All of these benefit from someone with a science background.
» Being versatile and creative and having a can-do attitude are crucial when working in smaller companies. The “I’m just this” types don’t get very far.
» “I think it’s becoming increasingly more important for even a scientist to be able to communicate specifically in a business environment.”
» In any company it’s all about shareholders. You’re trying to drive that.
» On the difference between working for a small company and a large company: “Before it was: We could make a decision and go take action. But we never had the resources to do anything. And now we’ve got all the resources we need but it’s impossible to make a decision and get a consensus. You spend a lot more time in meetings and working with other colleagues and trying to pull things together” in a big company.
» “I would never trade in my graduate career or my postdoc for anything. Because you’re learning the entire step of the way. And that learning is invaluable.”
At this point in Miguel De Los Rios’ career, he’s having “a fantastic time.” He has worked on the science side of things, then shifted to the business side, and now he’s back on the science side again. He’s paying it forward, helping companies out of UC San Francisco, UC San Diego, and UCSB launch. “I’m certainly a nerd at heart. And happy to be a nerd,” he said.
“I think the story of how you start a company involves not just one person but usually a large network, a support group, so to speak, in many different aspects,” he said.
If De Los Rios could give one piece of advice to Ph.D. students who wish to get into the biotech industry, it would be simply this: “Never give up.”