Dave Repp, Assistant Director, Venture Center, focuses on the creation of life science start-up companies and business opportunities based on technologies discovered and developed at the University of Michigan. He has over 15 years of experience in research commercialization, new venture creation, and business consulting in the life sciences and high tech industries.
IMPACT: Let’s start with what originally brought you to Ann Arbor. Did you come here because of the University?
DAVE: I originally came to Ann Arbor to study mechanical engineering and business at U-M. In the years between earning degrees, I spent some time working in strategy consulting for Deloitte, then for a hybrid VC-consultancy near the University of Virginia. It was in that role that I got the bug to work in startups, and especially research commercialization. So, I came back to settle here about 14 years ago with the intention of starting a company and having a hand in growing the burgeoning local entrepreneurial ecosystem.
IMPACT: Before joining U-M Tech Transfer as Assistant Director of the Venture Center, you actually worked for one of our U-M startups. I’m curious as to how that experience might influence your work here today, as you help U-M companies get off the ground.
DAVE: University discoveries are, by definition, very early-stage and therefore carry a great deal of technology/scientific risk. At the time we launched our company from U-M in 2004, the University didn’t have nearly the same translational resources as today. So, all of the burden of scientific validation and optimization lay with the startup. Today, we have the Coulter Program, Mi-Kickstart, Mi-TRAC, and the NCAI-CC among other translational programs to help advance technology along the path toward commercialization. My strong advice to nearly every scientific founder is to take advantage of these programs as much as possible not only to de-risk their technology, but also to do exploratory work to confirm its value proposition in the marketplace before launching a startup.
IMPACT: Having experienced technology transfer from both the perspective of someone on a startup team that licensed technology from U-M, and, now, as someone charged by the University with assembling startup teams, providing guidance, and ultimately launching companies, I’m curious if you now have a different appreciation for the process.
DAVE: Having been a licensee of four different universities, including U-M, I certainly have an appreciation for both sides of the tech transfer-startup relationship. I’ve had both positive and negative experiences on either side — negative when the other side approaches the process as an adversary (for the record, my experience as a licensee of U-M was very positive).
From my observation, many people believe that the licensing process is a zero-sum negotiation. Once people understand that the university, inventors, and licensees all have the same objective of commercializing inventions that benefit society, the process can actually be value-added and go much more quickly.
Most university tech transfer offices have evolved to be more than intellectual property protection and license negotiation. They’ve realized that in order to maximize the potential of the technology in their portfolio and best serve faculty, tech transfer has to find ways of adding value to licensees. As I have considered my own role as a part of Tech Transfer, I’ve looked to my own experiences in startups to generate ideas for how our office can become a better resource before, during, and after execution of a license.
IMPACT: You mentioned that, as a student, you studied both business and mechanical engineering. Your portfolio at U-M, however, is very heavily weighted toward the life sciences. What happened to move you in that direction?
DAVE: My shift to life science was a matter of circumstance, rather than by design. Since one of my goals in business school was to launch a new startup, a group of colleagues and I approached Robin Rasor at Tech Transfer with the offer of writing business plans for faculty members who were interested in founding companies. Robin connected us to a professor in the Medical School, Jim Baker, who was developing a nanoparticle for drug delivery. Not only did we write the business plan, but we pitched the idea to VCs and got, what would be, Avidimer Therapeutics funded. I stayed with Avidimer throughout the lifecycle of the company and then was asked by one of the VCs to lead another one of their early-stage portfolio companies. That company, Gema Diagnostics, was focused on molecular diagnostics for in vitro fertilization.
IMPACT: What initially attracted you to this opportunity with the Venture Center?
DAVE: After Gema, I thought about joining another startup right away. But, when I was approached by Jack Miner with an offer to join the Venture Center, I viewed it as an opportunity to gain exposure to a broad range of technologies and grow my network within the University. What I didn’t anticipate was the amount of learning and personal growth that would come with the role. U-M Tech Transfer is really a collection of outstanding professionals who have had some amazing experiences. I’d like to hope that a bit of my colleagues’ wisdom has rubbed off on me over the past few years.
IMPACT: How long have you been with the office, and what changes have you seen during your tenure here?
DAVE: I’ve been with the office just over three years. During that period, the office has seen an influx of new talent and a complete turnover in the leadership ranks. There has been an earnest push to become more collaborative externally with other groups on campus and internally between Licensing and the Venture Center. I would expect that effort to continue and pick up speed once our new Associate Vice President for Research, Kelly Sexton, settles into her role.
IMPACT: Can you talk a bit about the evolution of the startup ecosystem at U-M, and how it might have changed since your time as a graduate student at the Ross School of Business, when, I suspect, you first started thinking about such things?
DAVE: Not so long ago, I was discussing this same topic with legendary U-M finance professor David Brophy. “A dozen or so years ago,” he said, “only 10-percent of MBA students knew anything about startups and venture capital.” Now, though, he said, “It’s 90-percent.” So there’s been a sea change in the wider world, with students and faculty alike considering startups as a career. At the University, we’ve seen an explosion of innovation and entrepreneurial resources along with a growing coordination among ecosystem partners. From my seat in Tech Transfer, it seems the accelerating cadence of inventors eager to form companies based on their discoveries is a direct result of these efforts.
IMPACT: How do you perceive your role at the Venture Center?
DAVE: My role, by necessity, is facilitator. Selfishly, I would love to dig into every life science startup project that comes into to our office. But, we have such an abundance of great projects that in doing so, I would become a bottleneck. Instead, my role is to find the best resource to help project teams advance their vision and then get out of their way. Fortunately, I’m able to lean on our mentors-in-residence and ecosystem collaborators to do the heavy lifting..
IMPACT: I know it’s probably a difficult question, as you’re currently working with dozens of projects that could evolve into companies, but is there anything that you’re particularly enthusiastic about right now?
DAVE: You’re right. That is a tough question. At the moment, one project in which I take a great deal of pride is Jim Varani and Kent Johnson’s non-irritating retinoid program. I say that not just because of its commercial potential, but because of the level of persistence and collaboration that it took to get the project to this stage. Any number of times over the years, the technology could have been left for dead, but Jim and Kent kept after it. One of our mentors-in-residence, Bruce Auerbach, along with Brad Martin, Mi-TRAC Life Science Program Director, found a way to pull together enough funds so Jim and Kent could generate some exciting new compounds and obtain follow on funding from Mi-TRAC. If the project ultimately succeeds as a new drug, their perseverance along with great advice from our office and collaboration with others on campus make this project a story worth telling.
IMPACT: When you’re not here in the office, how do you spend your time?
DAVE: During the school year, most of my free time is occupied by attending my kids’ sporting events. My daughter is on the Ann Arbor Hockettes synchronized skating team and my son is on the Michigan Tigers travel soccer team. And this year, we added an exchange student from Mexico to the mix. He’s played on his high school JV football team and is currently on the varsity wrestling team.
I’m looking forward to a ‘pause’ in the action to take a trip up north to do some skiing and snowshoeing.
IMPACT: What do you enjoy the most about working here?
DAVE: I really enjoy the people I work with. We are all a little bit nerdy, have great senses of humor, and enjoy teasing one another. I think we also have a deep sense of appreciation for one another and the hard work we each put into serving the University.
IMPACT: Given your experience, what would you say is the most critical factor influencing whether or not a startup will be successful?
DAVE: Since I’m a Michigan guy, that’s an easy answer: it’s The Team. But, it’s true. In a recent survey of VCs conducted by researchers at Harvard, University of British Columbia, University of Chicago, and Stanford, 885 respondents indicated that they value the quality of the team higher than any other diligence criterion by greater than a 3:1 margin. What’s more, respondents were nearly unanimous in saying that the startup team was most responsible for a company’s success or failure.
In a university tech transfer setting, we hold discovery and intellectual property in such high regard. But, it’s important to remember that in order for technology to benefit anyone, entrepreneurs need to commercialize it. In the last few years, our office — in particular, Barbara Koenig, our Talent and Engagement Manager — has ramped-up efforts to build a bench of great leaders and subject matter experts who can help us launch better startups faster.
IMPACT: What are you most excited about in the new year?
DAVE: I don’t think anyone knows for sure how our office will evolve over the coming year. But I’m hopeful we’ll be even more engaged within the University, our alumni base, and the entrepreneurial ecosystem. I do know that Kelly will bring new ideas and best practices with her from NC State along with an openness to innovation. At the end of the day, I’m a startup guy. So, with change in the air, I’m excited to think that Tech Transfer will feel more than a bit like a startup. Who knows, maybe we’ll get a foosball table!