A “Restart” for Entrepreneurship Programs at UCSF

Xconomy San Francisco — 

The University of California, San Francisco, is no stranger to commercialization of academic research. UCSF professor Herbert Boyer co-founded Genentech, the company that arguably kicked off the entire biotechnology revolution, back in 1976. In more recent years the life sciences-focused campus has continued to produce faculty-led spinoffs such as Intellikine, Calithera Biosciences, Principia Biopharma, and SeaChange Pharmaceuticals. It’s also home to the California Institute for Qualitative Biosciences, or QB3, which supports biotech entrepreneurs at UCSF, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Cruz, and also does some seed investing through its Mission Bay Capital operation.

Still, it takes a lot of time and money to get a life sciences venture off the ground, and for UCSF faculty, postdocs, and students who are new to entrepreneurship, it’s hard to know where to begin. Getting them oriented was part of the mission of the UCSF Center for BioEntrepreneurship, a division of the university’s Office of Research—but for the last couple of years the center has been largely inactive, as its previous director, Gail Schechter, left UCSF some time ago.

Now the center has a new leader, a new name, and an expanded agenda. When Stephanie Marrus, a 20-year veteran of the life sciences business, joined as director in March 2012 she says her first decision was to simplify the organization’smoniker—it’s now just the “Entrepreneurship Center at UCSF.” Next she organized a couple of new classes for aspiring entrepreneurs from inside and outside the UCSF community—and now she’s hoping to staff up, do some fundraising, and find a permanent physical space for the center on campus.

After years in leadership roles at Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX), Creative Biomolecules, and a Besssemer-funded MIT spinoff called Gel Sciences, Marrus (pictured above) has been busy recently as a turnaround consultant and interim executive inside distressed biotech companies. She says the consulting was good practice for her new role.

“It’s the perfect job because it lets me do all the things I love in the entrepreneurial world—creating programs, doing a restart of the center within UCSF, bringing in best practices from the valley, and adapting and translating thinking and techniques from outside the life sciences,” she says.

I had coffee with Marrus at UCSF’s Genentech Hall last week and asked her to lay out her thoughts about the center’s role and the best ways to encourage bottom-up entrepreneurship on campus. Here’s an edited version of our conversation

Xconomy: What was the state of the entrepreneurship center when you arrived at UCSF, and what are your main goals for it?

Stephanie Marrus: The center just hadn’t been active for the past couple of years. It was time to take a fresh look at everything and figure out what the community needs now in 2012 and how can we deliver the highest-quality programs. My goal is to make this the premier center for life science and healthcare entrepreneurship in the U.S., if not the world. So we’re starting with big eyes and a big appetite.

Our chancellor, Sue Desmond-Hellman, is very commercially focused. As you know, she was the president of Genentech, and there is a real appetite here to see the fruits of all this incredible intellectual capital that we have brought to the benefit of humankind. And the way to do that is to commercialize it and make it available. We want to change healthcare for the better. You can’t do that if you’re sitting in an academic environment and not talking with the commercial world.

X: Who are your customers, so to speak—the people you want to help directly?

SM: We are still feeling out what the answer is. What I would like to be, and what we are making progress doing, is touching all the elements of the campus. It could be faculty, it could be clinicians in the medical center, it could be scientific researchers, postdocs, PhD students. Last night we had event with the chairman of Life Science Angels, a major angel group in the valley, and when I asked who was in the audience—how many from the medical center and how many from industry—we had hands up in all of those categories. What I am hoping is that we can create a real community of entrepreneurial interest that includes industry, research, and medical. That diversity is the best way to facilitate the start of new things.

X: So it’s your hope to get new companies started?

SM: Certainly one goal is to facilitate the creation of new companies to bring UCSF technologies to market. Secondarily, we’re fostering entrepreneurial spirit. Having our students find other career paths that might be appealing to them in entrepreneurial companies or in large companies that want to take an entrepreneurial approach to their problems, that is great as well.

X: Are you seeing a grassroots pull for more resources or training in entrepreneurship from groups on campus?

SM: I am. I came in March, and my first question was, “Well, do people want entrepreneurship here?” And as I’ve held events and programs and courses and started a dialogue with many of the constituents here, I’ve discovered that yes, in fact, there’s a lot of interest, but people are sometimes lost. They have an idea or a technology and they’d like to think about starting a company but they just don’t know how to get from here to there. That is the service we can provide—we can teach them. We can give them access to a network, an ecosystem.

X: How do you think about the new center in relation to QB3? Of course QB3 has a broader mandate than just UCSF, but they are based at UCSF, and have done a great job stirring entrepreneurship across UCSF, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Cruz. What can the center bring to UCSF that it doesn’t already have?

SM: it’s great that we have more than one entrepreneurship asset. In fact, Stanford has 14 separate organizations focusing on entrepreneurship. Doug Crawford [QB3’s associate director] and I view our activities as synergistic. I don’t differentiate by stage of the venture. At times we overlap and we sometimes collaborate, such as bringing NCI to Campus to talk about grants, inviting the QB3 network to the Entrepreneurs Club, and encouraging teams from both to enter the Berkeley Startup Competition. The bottom line is that having more entrepreneurship programs and events is better, adding to the overall environment at UCSF.

X: What kinds of entrepreneurship courses are you organizing?

SM: The first course I created was called “Financing New Ventures” and 78 people signed up. So there is clearly a lot of interest. It was a five-week mini-course that … Next Page »

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One response to “A “Restart” for Entrepreneurship Programs at UCSF”

  1. Valerie Bowling says:

    Kudos to University of California, San Francisco to assign resources dedicated to entrepreneurship in life sciences. This is where new life science innovation is going to come from.

    Valerie Bowling, Executive Director, The Conference Forum