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10 Questions w/ David Schaffer — Prof @ Berkeley & Serial Entrepreneur

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David Schaffer

David Schaffer is a Professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, Bioengineering, & Neuroscience @ University of California Berkeley, he also serves as the Director of QB3 — Berkeley.

At Berkeley, Schaffer applies engineering principles to enhance Stem Cell & Gene Therapy approaches for Neuro-Regeneration. This work includes mechanistic investigation of stem cell control, as well as molecular evolution & engineering of viral gene delivery vehicles.

He has Co-founded six companies including: 4D Molecular Therapeutics — which uses a novel technology platform to engineer optimized, proprietary adeno-associated viral (AAV) vectors for gene therapy, Ignite Immunotherapies, which is developing novel oncolytic virus technologies as cancer therapies in partnership with Pfizer, Valitor — which is developing a novel protein-polymer conjugation technology to develop greatly enhanced protein biologics for a range of disease targets, Axent focused on stem cell therapies, & two others in stealth.

Schaffer graduated from Stanford University with a B.S. degree in Chemical Engineering in 1993. Afterward, he pursued a PhD @ MIT with Professor Doug Lauffenburger & conducted a postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Fred Gage @ The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, before moving to UC Berkeley in 1999.

Learn more about David Schaffer’s work on BIOS Podcast:

We sat down with David Schaffer to ask his viewpoints on everything from entrepreneurial lab culture, what he looks for in new research topics, to advice on building companies…


What advice would you give to founders working with University Tech Transfer looking to spinout out a company?

“It’s important to talk to your licensing office to learn about their goals and culture. Is their priority getting technology translated into the private sector without as much of a focus on licensing revenue? Is it a priority to license to university-associated founders? Is their goal to maximize licensing revenue? This will help you and your contract attorney find the right ways to communicate and find compromise in order to license your technology.”


Can you describe your process for vetting new ideas to pursue in your lab?

“I look for three criteria in choosing a new project or direction. If the project worked, would it have a strong translational impact? Would it also advance our fundamental understanding of biology? And would our group’s expertise and knowledge give us a unique competitive edge in this area?”


How do you establish an effective entrepreneurial lab culture?

“We are a problem-driven lab, i.e. our projects are motivated by important, practical problems. When someone in our lab proposes a new idea, project, or experiment, I always ask what problem it would solve and what the impact would be. I also motivate both them and myself by learning more about the life experiences of patients suffering from the conditions we are working so hard to learn how to treat.”


What advice would you give to professors trying to entrepreneurialize their labs?

“Find great problems. In doing so, it’s very useful to talk with people who’ve had experience in industry. In addition, developing and growing a network is really important for accessing all the knowledge needed to start a company, and it’s also a great way to make friends and colleagues.”


Outside of academia, what is one seemingly random activity that helps make you a better researcher?

“My favorite hobby is rock climbing. In addition to keeping me in shape, making me happy, and hopefully letting me live longer, it is all about focusing hard to solve problems.”


How do you identify the point at which a scientific discovery is ripe for commercialization?

“Speaking specifically about therapeutics, the moment the field begins to have clinical success. Before this it’s perceived as too risky. Too long after this, and it’s hard to be competitive.”


What advice can you give to academics raising their first round of venture funding?

“Polish your pitch extensively by presenting to friends and colleagues. Then with each pitch, continuously integrate feedback to improve your pitch. Finally, work towards developing a couple term sheets to maximize opportunities.”


What advice would you give to business professionals looking to get in contact/help commercialize startups spinning out of academia?

“After reading papers and attending conferences to scout for great technologies, getting to know the researchers and if appropriate asking them to co-found the company can lead to a strong and productive relationship.”


What advice would you give to professors in balancing founding a company and continuing to pursue academic research?

“Work really, really hard! Also, become really efficient and organized with your time to squeeze every last extra second out of your day.”


What has been the most helpful piece of advice you received throughout your career as an academic entrepreneur?

“Never shy away from reaching out to people to ask their advice. Starting a company requires knowledge in so many areas that they don’t teach in a classroom, so talking to and learning from a range of experts is hugely helpful.”

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❤️ Thanks Andrew Yashar for your help in putting this together :)

Alix Ventures, by way of BIOS Community, is providing this content for general information purposes only. Reference to any specific product or entity does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation by Alix Ventures, BIOS Community, or its affiliates. The views expressed by guests are their own and their appearance on the program does not imply an endorsement of them or any entity they represent. Views and opinions expressed by Alix Ventures employees are those of the employees and do not necessarily reflect the view of Alix Ventures, BIOS Community, affiliates, and content sponsors.

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