By GREGORY ZELLER //
It’s become vogue for research institutions to staff “entrepreneurs-in-residence,” experienced innovators who can help science-based startups find their commercial footing, because they’ve been there and done that.
Leave it to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to give the notion an innovative spin with a first-ever “executive-in-residence,” a 25-year life-sciences and drug-discovery veteran named Andrew Whiteley.
In Whiteley, the lab doesn’t really have an entrepreneur – he’s never actually launched a new business himself – but it does have a longtime professional with multinational C-suite experience and a track record of helping biotechs reach their commercial potential.
The “retired” Whiteley has been hanging around CSHL since 2008 in a sort of volunteer-mentor capacity. Officially, he’s been a member of the lab’s Corporate Advisory Board, an organization of local businesspeople who support CSHL’s research and education mission.
Of late, he’s spent the bulk of his time helping Envisagenics cofounders Maria Luisa Pineda and Martin Akerman develop a business plan for their biological-dataset startup, even accompanying them to their first-ever trade show, the Bio-IT World Conference & Expo held this month in Boston.
The idea behind the new resident position, Whiteley noted, is to continue that mentoring effort “in a more formal way.”
“I’ve been volunteering my time at the lab since I first arrived in New York, and it was becoming a full-time job anyway,” he said.
Teri Willey, the laboratory’s vice president of business development and technology transfer, said formalizing Whiteley’s contributions will benefit multiple “ventures emerging from the biomedical research and technologies developed at the laboratory.”
“Mr. Whiteley will provide critical strategic, management and operational guidance,” Willey said, noting CSHL’s first-ever executive-in-residence boasts “experience in large and medium-sized public companies, running small public and private companies and participating on the boards of small early-stage companies.”
After earning an honors degree in biochemistry and chemistry at Nottingham University in his native U.K., Whiteley began his professional career as a chemist with Amersham, a British biotech that was eventually folded into GE Healthcare Life Sciences. He quickly migrated to the company’s commercial operations, building a foundation in sales and marketing in capacities both tactical – generating leads and servicing an international customer base – and strategic, helping Amersham develop new product lines.
He eventually came to the United States as Amersham’s veep in charge of finance, human resources, manufacturing and shipping at Amersham’s Ohio facility.
In its efforts to develop better DNA-sequencing systems, Amersham worked with many chemists, biologists, various engineers and specialists in the then-nascent field of bioinformatics. His job in Cleveland, he said, “was to pull together all these different skills and capabilities onto a single platform.”
It was heady stuff, and a demanding roll that helped him develop “an ability to understand and interact with the different parts of an organization,” Whiteley noted.
It also introduced him to the good folks at InforMax, a Maryland-based subsidiary of Life Technologies Corp. – now a division of Thermo Fisher Scientific – focused on the management of protein-and genomic-based information. Recruited as CEO, Whiteley oversaw a “rapid restructuring” of InforMax and ultimately its strategic sale to Thermo Fisher, two experiences that greatly informed him in his subsequent corporate positions.
The same can be said of his tenure at California-based Vitra Bioscience, though for different reasons. Recruited as Vitra’s CEO after the InforMax sale, Whiteley led the company’s efforts to commercialize a “multiplexed cellular analysis system” designed for use in secondary drug screenings – but the product, he noted, ultimately fell short.
“We put the technology into a final-product format, we took it to the marketplace, we sold instruments into the drug-discovery groups at a handful of companies,” Whiteley said. “Unfortunately, the technology didn’t make it. It just couldn’t achieve the technical specifications needed for cellular analysis.”
While Vitra Bioscience fell short in that case, the experience still provided key corporate-development lessons.
“Not every company makes it and it’s almost impossible to be 100 percent successful,” Whiteley noted. “It still tells you a lot about the importance of understanding and maximizing your value proposition, and how to approach the challenges of starting a new company.”
Whiteley had more success at this next posting, with Enzo Life Sciences, a subsidiary of Farmingdale-based Enzo Biochem Inc. The parent company had acquired several smaller companies and recruited the experienced biotech exec to mold them into a single commercial entity under the Enzo Life Sciences banner.
In addition to bringing him geographically close to CSHL, his role with Enzo Life Sciences tapped directly into the many disciplines he’d developed in his previous positions – and reinforced some of his earliest commercialization lessons, Whiteley noted.
“What I learned most (at Enzo Life Sciences), and what’s most applicable to what we’re doing at Cold Spring Harbor, is that it’s easy to think you have all the answers,” he said. “There’s a tendency for startups to try and come up with all the ideas and solutions themselves.
“I’m a great believer in business development through cooperation,” Whiteley added. “Startups need to realize there are opportunities out there and relationships they can establish. You’ve got to be aware of that in a competitive marketplace.”
This is just some of the wisdom the seasoned executive plans to share with the many startups spinning out of CSHL’s world-class laboratories. He’s already logged time helping CEO Andreas Grill prepare DepYmed – a breast cancer venture of CSHL and New York City-based biotech giant Ohr Pharmaceutical – position his firm for its next fundraising round.
He’s also been familiarizing himself with drug-screener Certerra – preparing for “it’s next evolution,” Whiteley noted – and other relative newbies based on CSHL research. What he’s seen so far, he said, is proof-positive of the “absolutely global capabilities” of CSHL researchers and the science they’re producing.
“I’m always excited to work with smart scientists and help them commercialize their ideas,” he said. “I can bring a different set of skills to bear helping support these guys in areas they don’t have a personal set of experiences to lean on.”
And the best part, the veteran executive added, is he gets to keep learning new things.
“I learn something new every day here,” Whiteley said. “Once you stop learning, you might as well give up.”