The Man With The Golden Touch: Jeff Williams Eyes Triple Crown Of Sorts With Life Magnetics

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

If Jeff Williams has brewed some sort of secret concoction to converting local startups into big pay days, he’s not letting on.

“You just make sure you develop good companies that people want to have,” the low key Williams tells Xconomy. “We were fortunate to have some nice exits.”

That may be the understatement of the year. For a region starving for success stories, Williams has already provided two of them: the $275 million sale of HandyLab to Becton Dickinson (BD) in 2009 and the $205 million sale of Accuri Cytometers to BD earlier this year. Both HandyLab and Accuri are University of Michigan spinouts.

Williams was also previously CEO of Genomic Solutions, a life science products company in Ann Arbor he co-founded in 1997. The company ultimately went public in 2000 and eventually merged with Harvard Biosciences two years later.

That makes Williams the near-consensus savior of Michigan’s high tech economy, with HandyLab, Accuri, and Genomic Solutions as Exhibits A, B, and C. Local boosters say Williams’ success is proof that the state best known for its declining auto industry is sharply turning the corner.

“Jeff is one of those rare individuals who brings the whole package to the table as an early-stage CEO—very smart, driven, understands technology, strategy, how to manage a growing company, how to work with investors, and how to exit,” says Tim Peterson, managing director of Arboretum Ventures, which funded both Accuri and HandyLab. “We are very lucky to have him here in Michigan.”

Not that Williams is screaming for adulation.

“I try not to pay too much attention to that stuff,” he says.

Don’t worry Jeff. I’ll do that for you.

In truth, Williams is one third of a team that seems to have a found a winning formula: the U-M spins out a medical company, Arboretum finances it, and Williams leads it. The triumvirate provides much needed consistency and mass to a fragmented state that often struggles to attract the attention of outside investors and buyers of anything other than automobiles. In fact, Arboretum recently recruited Williams to run another U-M-bred startup, Life Magnetics.

“If there’s anything to the system, it’s that Arboretum and I get along very well,” Williams says. “We both gravitate towards good companies. We’re definitely seeing that with Arboretum, that it has become a premiere venture capital firm in the country.”

“The U-M has certainly gotten very good at backing companies spun out of the university,” he continues. “You hate to see all of that technology go to waste… It’s good to show that our technologies can be developed to a stage that they can be acquired.”

It certainly helps that Arboretum and the university can turn to a serial entrepreneur with a proven track record … Next Page »

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