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advanced materials such as what Roberts calls stretchable silicon—which could be used for bendable medical implants and electronics—licensed from the lab of chemistry and material science professor John Rogers, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Rogers has already shown that the material could be used to construct an artificial retina, but Roberts hasn’t provided details on which specific uses of the technology his startup will pursue. (Roberts and Rogers were both postdoctoral researchers in the lab of well-known Harvard chemistry professor George Whitesides in the 1990s.)
North Bridge, founded in 1994, is also in a cozy financial position compared with many venture outfits that are searching far and wide to raise money. Roberts says that his firm closed a $500 million venture fund last summer, before the financial meltdown later in the year delivered severe blows to many of the pension funds, endowments, and other entities that provide capital to venture firms. The new fund should also put Roberts in a strong position to actively invest in early-stage opportunities while his counterparts at many other firms rein in their bets.
There’s no doubt that Roberts has connections that give him an inside track on emerging breakthroughs at Harvard and MIT. He has already teamed up with Whitesides, his postdoctoral advisor, to co-found several ventures—including diabetes and obesity drug developer Surface Logix, Arsenal Biomedical, nanomaterials developer Nano-Terra, and Diagnostics For All. (Roberts regards Whitesides as a close friend, and his daughter even served as a flower girl in the wedding of Whitesides’s son, he says.)
Bob Langer, a prolific biomaterials inventor at MIT who has worked closely with Roberts as a fellow co-founder of Arsenal Biomedical, wrote in an e-mail that Roberts is an effective startup founder and is likely to succeed as a venture capitalist because “… he is very smart, great with people, and has a super entrepreneurial spirit. ”
Roberts also racked up scientific achievements of his own before he became an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. He was a National Science Foundation fellow during his postdoctoral years at Harvard, after earning his bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. at Duke University. He left Harvard in 1995 to join the R&D team in the specialty materials unit of Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW)), where his group developed polymer technology used in the extended release version of Pfizer heart drug nifedipine (Procardia).
Roberts went to Union Carbide because he felt he could fill a void there, just like he sees himself fitting in at North Bridge. “If I had gone to Bristol-Myers or Merck [rather than Union Carbide],” he says, “I think they would have had hundreds of people like me.”
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