Clint Rubin: Even great research needs a Rolodex

Bioscience Center director – and "proto-entrepreneur" – Clinton Rubin.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

The best science can’t commercialize itself.

That’s the key lesson gleaned by Clinton Rubin through years of scientific research and the creation of three successful startups, though he argues a bit about “successful.”

A distinguished professor who chairs Stony Brook University’s Biomedical Engineering Department, Rubin has been thrice bitten by the entrepreneurial bug – “a deep-seated pathology,” he explains – and while none of the biotech firms evolved exactly as he’d envisioned, each made its way to market, based on sciences Rubin invented.

All three also taught Rubin about commercialization, each in its own way.

A graduate of Harvard University (bachelor’s, physiology, 1977) and the U.K.’s University of Bristol (PhD, anatomy, 1983), he completed residencies at Boston’s Tufts University (cell biology) and Brigham and Women’s Hospital (biomechanics) and has a closetful of awards highlighting his scientific acumen.

But when it came to commercializing his next-level research, the self-described “proto-entrepreneur” had a lot to learn.

“There’s a chasm between launching a technology and creating a company,” Rubin told Innovate LI. “There’s a cultural difference between academia and industry.”

Just as each helped him bridge that gap, the three startups also prepped Rubin to direct SBU’s Center for Biotechnology, a state-funded effort dedicated to the development of new technology and new companies. The center is also one-third of the Long Island Bioscience Hub, which expands the mission to include Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The center offers programs to help researchers and entrepreneurs in the earliest stages of commercial development reach a point at which they’d benefit from an incubator or other business-acceleration program.

Rubin specifically trumpeted his center’s Bioentrepreneurs-in-Residence program, which has grown to eight and is still looking to hire. Such resources are essential to the translation of science to commodity, he said, a truth revealed when he launched his own first company.

That was Exogen, a partnership between Rubin and Jack Ryaby, an electronics expert and serial entrepreneur. Founded in 1993, Exogen produced the first FDA-approved low-intensity pulse-ultrasound device for the accelerated healing of bone fractures. It went public in 1995 and was ultimately purchased by a Tennessee-based subsidiary of Smith & Nephew, the London-based multinational medical equipment conglomerate.

While the basic science – using physical signals, like ultrasound waves, to influence organic tissue regeneration – was right in his wheelhouse, Rubin recalled early struggles with Exogen’s business model and credited Ryaby as the real brains of the operation.

“You need that manager with a fat Rolodex who can help you raise money,” Rubin noted.

Similar challenges (and solutions) accompanied the launch of their second collaboration, Juvent, which incorporated in 2002. Trading ultrasound waves for other mechanical signals, the company was making headway toward the development of non-pharmaceutical treatments for osteoporosis – it even completed several successful fundraising rounds, Rubin noted – but hit a wall when Ryaby passed away in 2004.

The company “stumbled along” until 2008, according to Rubin, when it ran out of money and its IP portfolio wound up in a bankruptcy court auction. An investor group jumped in, but was “less interested in developing the science and mostly interested in selling stuff,” according to Rubin.

The buyer still sells, but they haven’t attempted to evolve the science in over a decade, its inventor noted, and Juvent’s once cutting-edge wares are now “a little long in the tooth.”

“It’s like Apple if they decided to stop at iPad version No. 1,” Rubin said.

As a result, Rubin considers Juvent his least-successful commercial venture, and a reverse reminder of the principles that made Exogen a relative success.

“Short of a Nobel Prize, it’s difficult to attract money to the equation, no matter how smart you are,” Rubin said. “No matter how much we scientists want to see our science out in the health sector, it will never translate to the bedside without commercial partners.”

It’s a mantra Rubin has championed through the early years of his current enterprise, Marodyne Medical, which incorporated in 2010. Though company headquarters are in Florida, near its Tampa-based investors, “the science is based here,” according to Rubin, who’s evolving the basic Juvent technology to target a variety of indications, including an assortment of diseases and even adult stem cells residing in bone marrow.

The basic idea with the stem cells is to encourage undifferentiated cells – those that have not yet adopted specific functions – toward more useful destinies. Specifically, Rubin is targeting mesenchymal stem cells, which normally await chemical signals to trigger their “fate selection,” with physical signals intended to promote the formation of cartilage, ligaments and tendons, instead of fat cells.

The founder and chief technology officer predicts not only advanced treatments for osteoporosis, but potentially a non-pharmaceutical intervention for fat reduction – an “exercise plan without the exercise,” Rubin suggested.

Wherever the science goes, it won’t get there without the expertise of the firm’s investors, just as Rubin’s earlier startups wouldn’t have achieved much without Ryaby, and faltered in his absence.

If he can impart that lesson to lab-bound scientists passing through the Center for Biotechnology, the director noted, that’s a success even the proto-entrepreneur himself can’t deny.

“Being an entrepreneur is not the principal mission of a university faculty member,” he said. “But seeing our science at the bedside is a key mission of all scientists, and I truly believe that in order for that to become reality, it’s essential to include the financial professional.

“People are starting to recognize Long Island not only as a hotbed of discovery and development, but of entrepreneurship,” Rubin added. “It’s very fertile ground. And having the support infrastructure there is what will bring these technologies into the sunlight.”