HarkerBio Co-founders, Dr. Timothy Umland, Dr. Wayne Schultz, Joseph Luft, photo courtesy of Gloria J. Del Bel, Hauptman-Woodward Institute
By Alan Rosenhoch, BNE Business Development Manager
Formed as a Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute (HWI) spin-off in 2014, HarkerBIO’s mission is to work with clients to improve and optimize the process of drug discovery through Structural Biology.
Dr. Timothy Umland is one of HarkerBIO’s cofounders and I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions:
Q. Tell us a little about your start-up story. What were the most significant challenges and how were they overcome?
A. HarkerBIO was the result of a fortuitous match of a group of HWI scientists, Joseph Luft, Wayne Schultz, and me, becoming interested in the commercial side of science and HWI as an organization wanting to develop a new source of revenue to complement traditional grant funding. We developed a unique model where HarkerBIO offers specialized drug development expertise to its customers, licenses research conducted at HWI to develop commercial products, and helps HWI reduce its dependency on grant funding of its non-profit basic research mission.
Our main challenge was to recognize that conducting academic research and commercial contract research are significantly different enterprises. In order to begin this transition, Wayne and I took the High-Tech CEL class to learn about many of the steps necessary to create and grow a successful business. The biotech and other tech-based startup community and ecosystem is still evolving in WNY, so there is high competition for talent among this growing pool of entrepreneurial companies, which presents another challenge.
Q. Describe your experience starting up a biotech company in the Buffalo Niagara region?
A: In a word, fantastic. I can’t say enough about the support from the HWI Board of Directors and staff, who have backed the development of HarkerBIO by lending their significant cumulative business knowledge, acumen and elbow grease. In addition, the small but very supportive technology-based entrepreneurial community in Buffalo has been very willing to provide advice, contacts, and encouragement. I see that a startup culture is on the rise in the region, which will help everyone. Plus, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC) has a buzz about it that carries over to HarkerBIO and other companies on the Campus and ultimately the region.
HarkerBIO was recently named a semifinalist in the 43North Business Idea Competition, which we are very excited about. Not only is it a chance to obtain additional startup funds and other benefits, but it is also an opportunity to let people know about HarkerBIO. We also have an application in for the Startup NY program, with UB as our sponsor campus.
Q. You have participated in UB’s High-Tech Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL) Program as both an attendee and a presenter. First, how did the program benefit you and HarkerBIO? Second, what do you find to be the most beneficial lessons and advice you can now share with others?
A: It provided a great introduction to the local entrepreneurial and business development community. This network has been invaluable. It also provided a strong overview of the many different business parameters to consider when involved in a tech-based startup or business expansion through a series of guest speakers. My advice to future attendees is to be prepared to ask questions and engage in discussions with the course leaders, the guest speakers and the other attendees, and to avoid being a passive participant.
Q. Who do you feel would benefit from the High-Tech CEL program?
A. Anyone who is strongly considering founding their own tech-based startup, or who wants to take their existing tech-based business to the next level. In addition, graduate students involved in high tech areas may want to investigate taking their knowledge and ideas and turning them into businesses after graduation. The job market is tight now for many industries and there are few faculty positions available, so why not think about starting your own business?
Q. HarkerBIO participated with Buffalo Niagara BIO at the BIO International Conference in June. How has that conference benefitted HarkerBIO?
A: The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, UB Center for Bioinformatics and Life Sciences and Buffalo Niagara Enterprise teamed up to provide support to many local small companies to attend the BIO Conference through a grant from National Grid. Because of this, Buffalo companies had strong representation at the BIO meeting. This is the second year we have attended. Last year it was a great opportunity to talk to multiple potential customers and validate and, in some cases, revise HarkerBIO’s service offerings and marketing strategy. This past June, armed with a new approach, we engaged 22 potential customers and we are in the process of converting those contacts into business deals.
Q. How have you collaborated with the Buffalo Niagara region’s educational institutions?
A: HWI, who will be a continuing partner in the company, houses the UB Medical School’s Department of Structural Biology. HWI faculty members, including all of HarkerBIO’s founders, have faculty appointments in this department and are teaching and training UB graduate students. We are also active members of the BNMC community. Hopefully some of the region’s academic institutions, especially those emphasizing translational research, will want to make use of HarkerBIO’s services.
Q. What is your outlook for the growth of the life sciences industry, in Buffalo Niagara over the next 5-10 years?
A: It is highly promising. The growth of the BNMC, including UB’s greater presence, helps build momentum. As a critical mass of both academic and commercial activity build in the region, it will tend to lower the barrier to entry as well as attract more talent and investment to the area.