Issue Date: August 20, 2012
Involved in founding seven companies and now a mentor to other entrepreneurs, Glenn D. Prestwich, Presidential Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Utah, entered the business realm more than 20 years ago “kicking and screaming,” he says. He wasn’t driven by a passion for business to start one of his early companies, but he took on the added task to free his academic lab to focus on research.
Over the years, however, Prestwich, 63, has been able to combine what he likes to do—and, more important, the impact he wants to have as a chemist—with the formation and operation of small companies. And as the presidential special assistant for faculty entrepreneurism at Utah, he supports others working toward their entrepreneurial goals.
In the first half of his academic career, Prestwich was happy running a research group and using his synthetic chemistry abilities to help other scientists by providing compounds. In 1992, while at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, he was asked to head the university’s Center for Biotechnology. Despite his best efforts to avoid the job, he got it anyway.
“It wasn’t something that I set out to do, wanted to do, or thought I had any qualifications to do,” he says about running the center and helping the faculty start companies and grow the downstate New York biotech sector. “It was an uphill battle for me to go from being a scientist to being a guy who wore a suit.”
Nevertheless, Prestwich says he learned about how effective teams and businesses work, especially in tackling complex tasks. “You can’t do anything innovative and succeed unless you have a team,” he notes. During that time, he and partner James A. Hayward started Clear Solutions Biotech, which used technology from Prestwich’s lab for making hyaluronic acid derivatives. The business was eventually sold.
In 1996, Prestwich moved to Utah, excited about the prospect of getting back into research. Very soon after arriving, he and chemistry professor C. Dale Poulter were bemoaning the fact that their students and postdocs spent too much time fulfilling requests for specialty reagents.
“It was out of desperation that we started the first company in Utah so we could do research again, rather than just put powders in ampules,” Prestwich says. But clearly there was a customer need, and in 1997, Echelon Research Sciences began supplying biological assays and reagents. Now called Echelon Biosciences, the business is part of research chemical supplier Frontier Scientific.
By this time, Prestwich had learned “how to invent around my own patents.” Hyaluronan biomaterials became the basis of his next four companies. The first in 2003 was SentrX Surgical—which became Carbylan BioSurgery in 2005—from which offshoots SentrX Animal Care and Glycosan BioSystems were formed in 2006. Bioresearch product supplier BioTime purchased Glycosan in 2011. He founded the fourth company in 2008: GlycoMira Therapeutics is developing semisynthetic glycosaminoglycan ethers as anti-inflammatory therapeutics.
At most of the companies, Prestwich initially served as chief scientific officer (CSO). “I like to get these companies going, but I don’t like to run things,” he says. Once R&D is established, he sees a natural transition “when they don’t need me as a CSO, but they need me as a science adviser,” he says. “I start out as the father and end up being the grandfather—somebody else is in charge on a day-to-day basis, and I come and give advice.”
On the basis of his experience, he would advise other prospective faculty entrepreneurs to keep their day jobs. “Faculty members are more effective at being innovative and creative than they are at managing a company, which is all about focus and execution, and that can be pretty boring,” he says. Instead, he suggests finding and working with seasoned managers who have the right skills.
Prestwich also sees great opportunities for faculty members and students to start businesses together. Preoccupied with other responsibilities, faculty members are “naturally risk averse,” he says. “On the other hand, students don’t have day jobs, and they require risk to get going and succeed. Together they make a great team and can make balanced decisions.”
As a mentor to faculty entrepreneurs, Prestwich has served as a board member or adviser to the companies they start. As an extension of this role, he now is chief executive officer of Metallosensors, which has licensed a Utah colleague’s technology to create handheld mercury detectors.
For Prestwich, the genesis of his companies has been market driven—identifying and fulfilling a customer’s need and helping to solve a problem. “The first half of my career was learning to do what I now know how to do,” he says, “and the second half is actually doing it and trying to make a difference.”
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