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University of Michigan Innovation Partnerships
University of Michigan Innovation Partnerships

Bruce Auerbach: Mentor-in-Residence


The U-M Innovation Partnerships Venture Center first rolled out the Mentor-in-Residence program in 2008, in response to a demonstrated need for experienced startup professionals to assist with the multiple startup projects in the U-M pipeline. Among other things, Michigan’s Mentors-in-Residence assist with the raising of startup capital, the hired entrepreneurial executives, the identification of early partners, the negotiation of agreements, and general strategy. Their “been there, done that” experience has been responsible, lover the last several years, for increasing success of our startup companies. The team is now comprised of 8 individuals representing over 195 years of collective startup experience, over $280 million dollars in startup funding raised, 9 post-graduate degrees, and XX corporate exits.

TECH TRANSFER: Would I be right to assume that you moved to Michigan in order to take a job at Pfizer?

BRUCE: Actually, I arrived in 1990, prior to the Pfizer acquisition of Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis.

TECH TRANSFER: So you saw a lot of change here in Ann Arbor… You lived through the Pfizer acquisition, the Lipitor years, and, ultimately, the closing of the entire research operation.

BRUCE: Yes, there were a few cycles of boom and bust at this site. Starting with the acquisitions by Pfizer, Ann Arbor experienced influxes of colleagues from other sites (most being downsized due to mergers), followed by layoffs to maximize profitable synergies. In 2001, I started hosting “going away” parties for close colleagues, culminating in the mother of all going away parties when the site closed. Although we had generous exit packages, many of my friends never quite landed on their feet. Others became consultants or branched out on their own to start biotechs, like I did.

TECH TRANSFER: And where were you just prior to taking the job at Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis?

BRUCE: I was running an academic research lab at Wake Forest Medical School (AKA Bowman Gray School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, NC).

TECH TRANSFER: So what made you stay here once Pfizer shut down operations?

BRUCE: One of my sons was a junior at Huron High. And, most importantly, my wife had a position with the Dexter School system, where we had guaranteed health insurance, and she was only eight years away from full retirement. This was prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and keeping insurance was vital.

TECH TRANSFER: How did your role within the company change over those 18 years?

BRUCE: I started out more as a bench scientist, but ultimately I oversaw a group of seven. My position morphed more into project leadership, shepherding compounds from early discovery (before compounds are identified) through early clinical development. (I would usually participate in the development through Phase II).

TECH TRANSFER: And you had a hand in starting a company after having left Pfizer, correct?

BRUCE: Yes, AlphaCore Pharma.

TECH TRANSFER: What was the story behind AlphaCore?

BRUCE: I was offered positions to stay with Pfizer, but I’d had my fill. Discussing options over drinks with a couple of my closest colleagues (actually I reported to one of them), I mentioned a drug target that I’d been interested in since graduate school. We thought, at the very least, we could move the science forward with SBIR grants. And, if we were correct about it, we thought, it would be of interest to Big Pharma. Our plan was very simple – we’d do only the studies that were needed to prove our concept, and derisk the technology to the point where potential partners would be willing to take the program over. So, we created AlphaCore, licensed the intellectual property from the NIH, and funded the company through SBIRs and angel investment. We kept ourselves very small, and below the radar, until we were at a point where clinical trials were commencing. After a successful Phase I study in stable Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) patients, we were ready to start visiting companies. We brought in Bill Brinkerhoff to help us properly package our data, and run our business development. We went from concept to sale in 51/2 years.

TECH TRANSFER: And that was your first entrepreneurial venture outside of Big Pharma?

BRUCE: Yes. My brother is the entrepreneur in the family. I was very content being a company man, until all the merger nonsense started hurting friends of mine. I also made sure I had three other options (i.e. job offers) before I felt comfortable utilizing my severance to start AlphaCore. I fully expected to succeed in science, but not in business.

TECH TRANSFER: Did it appeal to you? Did you have the tolerance for risk that’s required?

BRUCE: It’s very much like bringing your first-born home. You never quite feel you’re actually the father, until one day you realize you’ve been feeding, changing diapers, and caring for him….

I never quite felt like I was a “president” until after a few months of dealing with lawyers, CEOs, CMOs, contracts, hires, etc, and I realized that I was. From that point on, I tried to learn as much as I could from others, and the excitement of creating our own company, and executing on our plans, began to outweigh my risk-averse nature.

TECH TRANSFER: How did you come to know about the U-M Innovation Partnerships Mentor-In-Residence (MiR) program?

BRUCE: Through a friend and former-colleague (Bruce Markham) and business partner at Alphacore Pharma (Bill Brinkerhoff), both of whom had worked as Mentors-in-Residence.

TECH TRANSFER: Without getting into details on individual projects, what have you been doing as an MiR?

BRUCE: I’ve been concentrating on two main aspects of early company formation: Intellectual Property (IP) and strategy to proof-of-concept.

TECH TRANSFER: So you see your role as getting projects to the point where we have compounds with clean IP, addressing disease states with demonstrated market need?

BRUCE: Yes. Drug development is not as complicated as people may think. But it is impossible without solid basics. So I try to determine early if there is a chance to move forward… Failing early isn’t a bad thing if you learn from it.

TECH TRANSFER: How has your sense of the University changed, if at all, since joining the Innovation Partnerships team?

BRUCE: I believe OTT has a greater understanding of the differences between starting companies in the physical sciences and those in the life sciences. With that understanding, we are beginning to develop different approaches and strategies for companies interested in commercializing a therapeutic vs a “widget”.

TECH TRANSFER: Can you give us an example of where you added value in your role as an MiR?

BRUCE: I was approached by a couple of professors that have been in the OTT ecosystem for years, but were lost. I spent weeks with them digging down into their ideas, science, data and IP. Over the last year, we narrowed their focus to two main technologies, designed proof of concept studies, and packaged there data into concise presentations. When P&G visited, we were able to show them 3 very interesting projects that are of interest to P&G. After 4 meetings, P&G wants to expand the relationship to determine possible paths forward.

TECH TRANSFER: What advice would you give to other MiRs joining the U-M Innovation Partnerships team?

BRUCE: Be honest with the professors. Most of the ideas won’t pan out. If you can show them what’s missing, though, they can work toward a more focused study that may prove their point.