Interview with Jiwu Wang, President and CEO of Allele Biotechnology

Jiwu Wang, PhD, is President and CEO of Allele Biotechnology, Scientific Director and Professor of The Scintillon Institute, Visiting Professor of Nanjing Medical University and Maternal and Child Health Hospital, and SDEE member. We caught up with Dr. Wang to talk about his experience as an entrepreneur starting and growing a biotechnology company, and how he’s benefited from SDEE.

SDEE:  How do you describe the work you do at Allele Biotechnology?
Jiwu Wang (JW):  We develop new technologies. Without the technologies we’ve developed over the past 14 years, some people would still be using older, slower, less efficient methods in a few important research fields. We’ve developed significant innovation for imaging, fluorescent proteins, RNA interference, single domain antibodies, and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. We think of ourselves as on the edge of the most exciting fields.

SDEE:  How have you been able to grow the business at Allele? What changes have you made?
JW:  Over the years we’ve been consistent in our mission to stay on the very edge of developing new technologies. That is our strength and that is our value. What has changed for us is our source of revenue and funding. When I started Allele in 1999 our funding was all through NIH SBIR grants, selling ideas to review panels and NIH officials. The funding allowed us to develop a technology, file a patent, and create a reagent kit or license it to another reagent company. After a couple years in the reagent field, we established direct sales and marketing to grow revenues. We realized there is a limit to that. We don’t have the resources of a Life Technologies or Fisher to achieve that kind of scale. That trajectory was not going to create enough value or room for us to continue to grow. Today, our main funding comes from partnerships with pharmaceutical companies. We are finding that our technologies are more valuable when we work with large pharmaceutical companies who need our technologies to do their research better. Our next stage may involve running our own clinical trials using our stem cells.  As a matter of fact I will be making a trip to Asia next month to further a discussion along that line.

SDEE: What are you doing specifically in your partnerships with pharmaceutical companies?
JW:  This effort started last year with our 2012 Nature’s Scientific Reports publication with Luigi Warren describing the use of messenger RNA to make iPS cells. We realized we have a unique method to make iPS cells suitable for clinical use. Rather than just sell a kit or mRNA mix with a protocol, we wanted to let companies know that our method has a lot value. Last December I started going to conferences and meeting with companies. Since then we’ve signed a couple of licensing deals and research agreements with companies planning to use, or are already using, pluripotent stem cells in clinical trials. We’re also licensing out our fluorescent proteins to the imaging field. Over the years we’ve developed about half a dozen fluorescent proteins that are absolutely the best in their class, the brightest in the blue and green. In May we published in Nature Methods with Nathan Shaner, a former student of Roger Tsien’s, describing the brightest monomeric fluorescent protein ever, which is superior in every aspect than what’s previously available. We’ve obtained sensible licensing deals from companies in various fields, not just pharmaceuticals, but also in food and plant research.

SDEE:  What’s been the key to signing these partnering deals?
JW:  We don’t have a big business development team. We all pitch in to make connections and attend face-to-face meetings. But our number one strength is the technology. When people have a chance to look at our data, they are impressed with the results and they begin to inquire about how this can help improve their program.

SDEE:  How do you see entrepreneurship from a biotechnology perspective?
JW:  Entrepreneurship in the biotech field is about being efficient in the way you do research—because you are on your own. Being in biotech, you are already on the cutting edge, whether you are in research, new technology development, or creating a new market. Whatever you do, to be an entrepreneur in the biotech field you have to push really hard in terms of efficiency. In working with large pharmaceutical companies recently, I’ve realized just how efficient we are as a smaller organization. When we make a decision, we do it quickly. We have a round-table discussion where everyone has a chance to express their opinion, and whatever we conclude at the time is the idea we go with. We can execute any plan fast and efficiently. That is why I want to spend most of my time in an entrepreneurship setting, because it is time well spent as I see it.

SDEE:  What benefits have you received from being an SDEE member?
JW:  Being an SDEE member has helped me out in many ways. I’ve learned organizational skills from Scott Thacher and Scott Struthers and many other active members in terms of managing a team, managing a company, and managing relationships with other people. I’ve also made many connections. The partnerships that I mentioned probably wouldn’t have happened, or wouldn’t have happened as fast without help from the people I’ve met through SDEE. Finally, I’ve learned from others’ expertise and advice in areas such as deal-making. For example I’ve learned how to structure a pharmaceutical licensing deal, which is very different than a simple fluorescent protein licensing deal.

SDEE:  How do you attract top talent?
JW:   We’ve been fortunate to attract top researches in our fields to Allele’s team. Like Nathan Shaner in the florescent protein field and Luigi Warren in the mRNA iPS cell field, just to mention a couple. Our core R&D team is also composed of seasoned a virologist and ambitious MD/PhD clinicians. Researchers are attracted to Allele because we are like-minded. We build an independent environment with the spirit of being free to try whatever you want. We try stuff that might be considered risky or crazy. But we like challenging projects with big scientific rewards that take a lot of hard work and effort, where you don’t give up the first couple of times. That kind of research. This attracts people with that kind of spirit and who are themselves entrepreneurial in nature.

SDEE:  Where do you see Allele in 5-10 years from now?
JW:  That is the ultimate question for me. Right now I essentially run the company without having to worry about shareholders. But I think about how to grow the company to create value to attract and reward employees in a bigger way. Unfortunately the ultimate judgment of business success in society is the size of your company and top line revenue. In order to scale or upgrade, we can borrow, get investment, or go for an IPO. Or we can keep doing what we have been doing, get more partnership revenue and develop new technologies. Which step to take next? That is the question that I am actively working on as my next personal challenge.  Check back in half a year.