The 2016 CED Life Sciences Venture Conference took place this week in Raleigh. Here’s what happened, according to Jim Roberts, one of the most dedicated supporters of North Carolina’s entrepreneurial ecosystem we know.
After 15 years of going to the CED Life Sciences Venture Conference, these events begin to feel like a class reunion. While other people may despise networking, it is comforting to me. It’s hard for me to take 10 steps at this big event without running into people who kid me about my hair loss or recent weight gain. Wait, did I say this was comforting?
More than refreshing your professional network of industry contacts, this annual conference is also a bit of a March Madness for the startups that are selected to give an investor pitch in front of 1,000 attendees. Catching the attention of the right contact could just lead to the finding and hiring of the right CEO.
I had a certain amount of pride this year in a medical devices startup called Surgilum from Wilmington, North Carolina, that I have been mentoring for a few years now. Since I do not have a direct equity or board relationship with these startups, this is kind of like watching your nephew mature from Tee Ball to getting a major league tryout.
See, the rest of North Carolina thinks of Wilmington on Friday, Saturday and Sunday as a coastal weekend tourism destination. Even people from Wilmington who just automatically signed up for this annual conference did not know Surgilum was presenting. There was also a second startup in the demo room with a cofounder from Wilmington that I have been mentoring. Imagine if these people took the time to give these startups some mentoring and coaching assistance BEFORE the event. Surgilum did a great job during their quick six minutes in the spotlight and met some great new contacts to potentially help grow their business.
There are legends of the biotech/pharma/medical device industries who are just walking around, smiling and shaking hands at this event. One of those was Monica Doss, whom I refer to as the queen of the startup ecosystem in North Carolina. She was not the founder of CED, but she did serve as executive director for more than 20 years and is responsible for growing the CED from an idea with wobbly legs to the largest entrepreneur support organization in the world. She mentors us all who are crazy enough to work with cash poor startups. She calls me one of her favorite “firebrands.” I am not an English major so I had to look up what that meant.
Another person I saw shaking hands and shook my hand was the godfather of the life sciences industry, the great Charles Hamner, who was the first executive director of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. One of the nicest men in the history of the universe. Mr. Hamner has received the award that I hope to achieve one day, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.
The highlights of the second day of the conference were pretty monumental.
- I got to meet Cindy Whitehead, the founder of Sprout Pharmaceuticals, often mislabeled as the Female Viagra. Of course, this is not the same thing as Viagra. The pill is meant to increase desire to have sex and not sexual performance. Sprout is an incredible story. Sprout is a young company and had 36 employees but was acquired for $1 billion quickly after they received FDA approval. Many of us have seen the story on CBS This Morning. She has now started the Pink Ceiling Foundation to help women advance in the Life Sciences industry.
- Wilmington got another moment in the spotlight as the great Fred Eshelman was given the Life Science Leadership Award. Eshelman is the founder of PPD, a massive clinical research organization with headquarters in Wilmington. Eshelman was also involved in a company called Furiex, which had a HUGE $1 billion plus exit in a short period of time. And he is also the founder of Eshelman Ventures, a life sciences venture fund. He has also given $135 million to the UNC Chapel Hill Pharmacy School.
- And then there was a VERY interesting ending to the conference when Dr. Robert Lefkowitz discussed his journey to winning the Nobel Prize in his speech, “A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Nobel Prize.” He gave a real step-by-step process in slideshow fashion about the light-hearted needling of his mother to always do better. While the presentation made the audience laugh, Dr. Lefkowitz actually had a graph of the correlation of the amount of chocolate eaten in each country to the number of Nobel prizes awarded to each of those countries. And that is how he justified to his wife at the age of 67 that he should be eating much more dark chocolate.