Introduction by Dr. Uyen Chu:
I met Ankit Agarwal at the Wisconsin Entrepreneur Bootcamp closing reception in 2011 where he was one of the keynote speakers for the event. Ankit co-founded his company, Imbed Biosciences Inc., a privately held medical device company developing novel and patent-pending technologies for imbedding bioactive molecules in wound dressings and surgical implants, with his postdoctoral advisor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in December 2010. Since the company’s inception, he has won multiple business plan competitions and has earned SBIR funding from the NIH to bring his technology to the market. I thought Ankit’s journey from being an academic postdoc to being a CEO of a start-up company and his raw experience as a young entrepreneur might inspire our ASPET postdocs audience who are thinking about entrepreneurship.
Ankit, can you tell the audience more about Imbed Biosciences Inc. and your journey from being a postdoc to becoming the CEO of your company?
Ankit: Imbed Biosciences was founded in December 2010. It’s a start-up company that came out of the University of Wisconsin – Madison based on four years of my postdoctoral research in the Chemical Engineering Department. Since 2010, we submitted some SBIR grants to the NIH for seed funding to develop prototypes. In 2011, we received our first SBIR award for one year to continue our research and product development at Imbed Biosciences Inc.
Regarding my journey from postdoc to start-up CEO, in 2009, I was selected to be one of the 13 postdocs to participate in the Kauffman Foundation Entrepreneur Postdoctoral Fellowship program. The one-year fellowship training period allowed me to dedicate 50% of my time toward scientific product development while the other 50% of my time was spent on how to start a company. We covered aspects such as how to recruit a team, how to protect intellectual property (IP), and how to get initial investment for the company to make it an independent entity. By the time I completed the fellowship training in December 2010, I was able to organize a group of experts with whom I co-founded the company and with whom I wrote several SIBR grants. During that one-year training as a Kauffman Entrepreneur, I met leading medical device entrepreneurs, executives, and investors who are well versed in the field of medical devices. These individuals provided me mentorship on how to get along with my team and how to plan the next five years of the journey for our company.
Additionally, during that mentorship period, I participated in many business plan competitions nationally and internationally, and all those experiences and feedback I obtained allowed me to organize a well thought-out and iterated version of business plan with which to start Imbed Biosciences Inc.
Did your lab and PI have any role in facilitating this entrepreneurial venture? And what do you think are other key factors that led to your success and the success of your company?
Ankit: The platform technology on which Imbed Biosciences Inc. is based was invented by my PI and me while I was a postdoc in his lab, so he played an integral part in the founding of this company. Because he is one of the co-founders of Imbed Biosciences Inc., he has vested interest in the spin-off and the success of the company. In fact, my PI is a veteran entrepreneur, because he was a part of another start-up. He has seen the different stages of a company as it grows from a start-up to a midsize company. Based on his experiences (both successes and failures), he was able to warn me about the potential traps in starting a company, and he was very helpful in mentoring me in recruiting the founding team and in protecting our IP.
Can you compare your experience working in an academic laboratory to being a CEO of a brand new biotech start-up?
Ankit: It’s very different. As a scientist at a university, I was focused on doing my experiments, organizing data for publications, and managing a small lab from a technical perspective. Much like an academic laboratory, as a CEO of a start-up company, I also have to find resources and funding to run the company to do the technical work. But as a CEO of the company, I have to hire and manage staff members including technicians, accountants, business and IP attorneys to protect our interests. I have to make sure all the founding members have their interests aligned as we move forward. In addition, I have to make sure I articulate correctly the vision and mission of the company to everyone I meet. Because it is a company, our goal is to generate revenues and bring the product to the market, so I need to continuously find strategic partners who are willing to bring our product to the market. These people are CEOs of large established medical device companies. Finally, because the end users of our company are patients, we continuously seek input from them about the unmet needs of current products and how to improve on these products.
Most of us think that we need business training in the form of an MBA to lead a company, but that was not the case for you. Do you think your situation is unique?
Ankit: An MBA is a master in business administration, but there has to be a business to administrate. To start a company, especially a company that is based on a high-tech product or technology that has not been proven in the market, there are a lot of technical risks. In my opinion, the person most eligible to start a high-tech company is the person who feels there is the least amount of risk in the technology, and the right candidate is a scientist who has a deep understanding in that particular product/technology. Once the company is started, the role of the start-up CEO is to de-risk the technology to the level where seasoned business personnel, with MBAs, can feel comfortable to take the risk of joining the start-up company and expanding the company.
What is your advice to postdocs who are thinking about entrepreneurship?
Ankit: My advice to postdocs who envision a start-up company based on their own technical invention is first to envision a defined product around that technology. Because he/she is an expert in their field, the technical expertise might not be the limiting factor in starting a company. The limiting factor is to find the unmet need in the market, and so I advise them to conduct good market research. My second piece of advice is to find co-founding team members that complement their skill sets. The right founding team is the second most important factor leading to the success of a start-up. Statistics show that 80% of start-ups failed because the company either developed a product where there is no unmet need, or the company didn’t make up of the right founding team.