Like all organisms, entrepreneurs experience life stages. But instead of birth, childhood, adolescence and adulthood, they evolve from intellectual capital to incubation, bootstrapping to venture capital, startup to established company.
We visited with four University City Science Center founders at wildly different points in the process to explore where they are, how they got there and where they hope to go.
INFANCY: Alexander David, Fermentec
Unlike most entrepreneurs who start with a problem in search of a solution, the founders of Fermentec started with a solution in search of a problem.
In January, University of Pennsylvania grad students Siddharth Shah, Shashwata Narain and Alexander David were propelled into entrepreneurship when they won the university’s coveted Y Prize. The contest asked participants to find an application for new Penn-developed technologies.
Shah, Narain and David brainstormed uses for a new droplet-maker developed at a Penn lab. Their eureka moment came when they realized that the technology could be used to speed up beer fermentation in brewing, a process that typically takes weeks.
“If we could figure out a way to change that with droplets, we’d be the future of brewing,” recalls David.
The Fermentec founders claim they can now make fermentation happen up to nine times faster, with no impact on taste or alcohol content.
The team impressed the Y Prize judges with a solid business plan, a demonstration and, best of all, a small product sample. The win provided them with $10,000 in seed money and validation for their idea. It also set the clock ticking on protecting their intellectual property. In short order, the team incorporated (changing the name from Fermento to the more tech-y Fermentec), filed for provisional patents, entered into licensing discussions with Penn, and took space at the Science Center’s Port Business Incubator.
The founders continue to raise seed money, notably at Philly Tech Week’s UberPitch where they scored another $10,000. That money should boost the company as they develop a full proof-of-concept and prepare a prototype that they hope to pilot this fall at a handful of breweries.
The startup is so young that it has no web or social media presence. Looking ahead, the three founders have another year of graduate school, a Science Center lab that smells like beer and what they hope is a great idea that has found its problem.
CHILDHOOD: Johann deSa, Instadiagnostics
Johann deSa is back on track after suffering through the vicissitudes of the startup world.
While working on his doctorate in biomedical engineering at Drexel University, deSa developed a promising technology for point-of-care blood testing. In 2012, he had a company, an early investor and a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). So far, so good. But the investor walked away and deSa ultimately had to return the grant money.
Now his new company Instadiagnostics, founded last year, has been awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I grant from the NSF and secured a loan from Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania. Working out of the Science Center’s Innovation Center @ 3401 — and with the basic research done — deSa has lined up product development and business consultants, medical and biology collaborators, and filed a patent.
Still, deSa has no illusions about the difficulty of commercializing his diagnostic platform, which aims to bring centralized laboratory testing to the patient’s bedside: He estimates it will take $3 million and five years to bring to market — and the failure rate for medical devices is high.
But deSa is an entrepreneur through and through.
“I want to drive my own future, to have control of my destiny,” he says. “It may be hard, but I’ve chosen to do it…I really don’t have a Plan B.”
ADOLESCENCE: William Duckworth, Fever Smart
As a Penn undergrad, William Duckworth says he “had no plan to give up all my free time to a startup.” But when friend Colin Hill required 24/7 temperature monitoring while undergoing chemotherapy, Duckworth and other dormmates saw both a technological solution and an entrepreneurial opportunity.
Three years later, Duckworth, Hill and their Fever Smart co-founders Aaron Goldstein and Becca Goldstein are actively manufacturing and selling a smart patch thermometer that allows for continuous, remote temperature monitoring via smartphone.
Originally marketed to parents, Fever Smart is pivoting to an expanded market of in- and outpatient care and actively involved in clinical trials with healthcare providers.
Most notably for an early-stage company, Fever Smart has raised considerable funds, all without angel or venture capital. The young company received $50,000 in seed money as part of the 2014 inaugural class of the Digital Health Accelerator. A few months later, the company executed a widely acclaimed crowdfunding campaign, generating nearly $63,000 from more than 250 funders.
As students, the team had no overhead and drew no salaries, so every penny went into the company as they spent their nights building prototypes in school labs. Now, as winners of the inaugural Penn President’s Innovation Prize, they are ensconced at the Pennovation Center with $100,000 in prize money (plus living expenses) as they continue to build robust direct-to-consumer sales and introduce their product into clinical settings.
ADULTHOOD: Benjamin Doranz, Integral Molecular
Integral Molecular is a poster child for homegrown success, developing from what founder and CEO Benjamin Doranz calls “half a lab bench” in 2001 to a 10,000-square-foot facility at the Science Center. Today the company employs 35 and generates millions in revenues.
According to Doranz, Integral has never had outside investors. Ten original founders — along with Penn (which licensed the original technology) and the Science Center — each have an equity stake in the company.
With no obligations to investors or shareholders, Integral has been able to remain a research-driven biotechnology company, publishing widely, attending conferences and staying firmly entrenched in the scientific world. About half of the company’s funding comes from government research grants; the other half comes from its commercial operations.
The emphasis on research enables Integral to “dive into new areas,” says Doranz, and achieve meaningful progress on health problems such as Ebola and Zika. That’s as much a definition of success as its sales figures.
“We’re doing great work — great science and ideas — to improve the biomedical space,” adds Doranz. “And [we’re] able to execute on that. Why stop?”
This story originally appeared in our sister publication Flying Kite.
WRITER IN RESIDENCE is a partnership between the University City Science Center and Flying Kite Media that embeds a reporter on-site at 3711 Market Street. The resulting coverage will provide an inside look at the most intriguing companies, discoveries and technological innovations coming out of this essential Philadelphia institution.