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Science Chops Alone Don’t Cut It: The Entrepreneurial Growth Struggle

By Mark Kline, Founder and CTO, X-Therma

In the eight years since launching X-Therma, we’ve achieved chemistry breakthroughs that we believe will truly propel the field of organ transplant to a new era. But learning hasn’t taken place solely in the lab; for me, the last eight years have been an education in entrepreneurship.

It is the entrepreneurial struggle, this journey that scientists-turned-business owners must undertake. For many science and tech innovators, success or failure in entrepreneurship makes the difference between whether their ideas, however brilliant, end up changing the world or frozen forever as promising concepts in academic articles. The struggle is not something you learn in a PhD program.

I’ve been a scientist, or a would-be one, all my life. As a kid I loved paleontology and dragged a dinosaur book everywhere I went; I also read about driverless cars and imagined futuristic worlds. I came from a small-town and it never entered my head that I could own a business even though I had 4 jobs in one summer — let alone start one that could help revolutionize an entire medical field.

Profound opportunity put me on my path. One was that, after taking all science classes available, I discovered my abiding love for chemistry. Another was meeting Xiaoxi Wei in grad school at the State University of New York-Buffalo. Her brilliance in biotechnology and medicinal chemistry and her singular passion for improving the process of preserving organs for transplantation led directly to X-Therma and our quest to develop new molecules.

I’ve never stopped wanting to learn and learn quickly. I know now how critical those skills are for a scientist who wants to be an entrepreneur. As you’re continuing your labors in the lab and seeking investors and managing growth, you have to learn on the fly. A lot of people who are immensely talented in their academic fields don’t give enough credence to this essential business fact: Learn fast or die fast. And I mean FAST.

It hit me immediately when we completed our PhDs and left school: Xiaoxi’s idea for better cryopreservation of organs was still just an idea and there was a long path to getting anything off the ground. She wrote a proposal and was provided an opportunity as a “user” at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, giving her free access to lab space, instrumentation and the world’s greatest expertise in the science she wanted to pursue. But would something come out of the chemistry work fast enough to win government support and prevent failure before X-Therma even really got started?

Yet another stroke of luck kept us going: In 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense offered contracts to develop new cryoprotectants (the things that protect cells from freeze damage). After intense work and grant writing, X-Therma’s first data was enough to win a $150,000 award that brought us more research and saved us from choosing between gas and food. That’s when the self-education in entrepreneurship began in earnest through all of the disciplines — accounting, legal, intellectual property, leadership, financing, team building, and a multitude more. There are definitions — angel investors and KOLs, pitch decks and the many different investment vehicles that must be learned quickly.

You must learn critical skills far outside of science, like negotiating contracts and visioning the best strategy for your business. What’s the right timing for the next step? What role or who should our next hire be? You have to know which chess piece to put in place, and when each piece should be moved. Perhaps the hardest is to recognize, as we did at one point, when a technical concept doesn’t work. Then, you pivot, change programs, rebuild programs, close programs, and keep going.

If you have the good fortune to grow quickly, you might find yourself with nine people working on five different grants. That was a gift and a heck of a challenge: We had to learn how to hire the right people really fast.

When all your efforts begin to pay off and you have potential investors, you have to think hard about the terms negotiated, especially about any requirements the investor may bring to the table. Other founders have told me: “The worst thing to do is give up is your freedom in the early stage.” We all know, especially with platform technologies like X-Therma, that the landscape is going to change constantly and you need to be able to respond to the next unexpected opportunity or breakthrough. It’s harder to do that if you’ve agreed to investment terms that limit your scope now or may limit you in subsequent years.

We’re at an exciting place with X-Therma: Our organ preservation solution, XT-ViVo®, and our organ transport device, TimeSeal®, have received the Breakthrough Device Designation from the Food and Drug Administration, giving us reason for optimism about the technology’s impact and future use in organ transplant. We continue to gain new partners in Cell and Gene Therapy businesses using our XT-Thrive® solution for nontoxic hard freezing of tissues and cells.

X-Therma will continue commercializing our technology for wider use, expanding the possibilities in regenerative medicine. And hopefully, we will eliminate the organ waiting list soon by making organs more available to everyone.


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