Startup Pains: Business Advice from Research Entrepreneurs Who Have Been There and Done That


Dr. James Briggs, professor of biochemistry at the University of Houston and president and CFO of Metabocentric Biotechnologies, spoke to a captivated gathering of 30 aspiring tech entrepreneurs and professionals about the successes and hindrances encountered in his quest to launch his esteemed company.   

Metabocentric Biotechnologies is a biopharmaceutical company concentrated on developing new therapies for treating diseases. From diabetes to cancer, Metabocentric Biotech uses strategic modulation of cellular metabolism to develop therapies for these diseases.

During the discussion, Dr. Briggs touched on why he and business partner Dr. John Weihua launched Metabocentric Biotechnologies. “Primarily, we launched the company because we felt that the development of our technology stood a much better chance if we prosecuted it rather than try to find a licensing partner,” explained Dr. Briggs.

He elaborated that the intellectual property was just too premature for direct commercial licensing. Dr. Briggs informed the audience of tech and science professionals that pharmaceutical companies now look to small biotech to de-risk their approach before they even consider partnerships or acquisitions.

One major hindrance Drs. Briggs and Weihua encountered during the early stages of their company was, you guessed it: funding.

“Funding for a drug development startup in Houston is very, very difficult to find,” said Dr. Briggs. “Most investors in Houston are not comfortable with the high risk and very long horizon of pharmaceutical development,” he continued.

Dr. Briggs said he and his business partner overcame the funding obstacle through a sublicense to a company with experience in this area. “The connection between the sublicensed company and Metabocentric was personal. They want and need the primary inventor to be involved.”

One major success Dr. Briggs mentioned was that he and Dr. Weihua identified a partner to prosecute the pre-clinical and clinical development of their brain metastasis breast cancer therapeutic lead compound. He explained that they achieved this through personal connections and by taking advantage of the strong economic growth and significant focus on technology development in China. “They (Chinese tech team) demonstrated twice that our mouse results are real, albeit with a bit variability,” Dr. Briggs said.

Dr. Briggs ended the discussion by sharing some seasoned advice on how to mitigate the growing pains inevitable in tech startups. “Think very, very carefully before choosing your partners. They can be more difficult to get rid of than a spouse!” he exclaimed.

On the financial side, Dr. Briggs strongly suggested getting a lawyer to seek tax advice before launching a startup. He continued, “Get really, really good lawyers if you get involved in a contract dispute too. Since you’re likely the smaller party, the adversary will have a lot more money to spend.”

Startup Pains is a monthly discussion at UH’s Technology Bridge in which entrepreneurial scientists share their experiences running science-based businesses. The event is open to entrepreneurs of UH startups and any UH leaders seeking to network with university based startups.