Q&A: David Rabuka

BooksI sat down with David Rabuka at the recent IBC Antibody Engineering and Therapeutics conference and discussed his entrepreneurial path. David is the founder and chief scientific officer of Redwood Bioscience, a startup company focused on antibody-drug conjugates and other semi-synthetic therapeutics. David started the company as a graduate student at UC Berkeley, where he earned a PhD in chemistry with professor Carolyn Bertozzi.

Gene Kym:  You worked in industry at Optimer Pharmaceuticals prior to starting your PhD program.  How has this influenced your scientific development and career as an entrepreneur? 

David Rabuka: Working in a small biotech environment before I started my PhD program was very influential in my scientific development and career as an entrepreneur. The speed of work and the focus on reaching milestones quickly was something I learned while working in industry. This is especially true if you are involved in a smaller start-up environment. I learned how to design experiments that would lead to an answer quickly, either positive or negative, and then move on to the next question. I also learned the technical skills I needed when I started my PhD program and could run independently out of the gate. Being exposed to the business side of biotech was a fantastic learning experience, one that I would not have been exposed to without working in industry. Building and executing on programs that generated value, both for investors and customers/patients, is something that I was fortunate enough to be exposed to in a small start-up environment. The start-up environment is engaging and exciting. I knew that even upon returning to UC Berkeley to work on my PhD program that my career would continue with an entrepreneurial focus.

GK: You licensed the technology from UC Berkeley and started a company while writing your PhD thesis. Can you speak about this experience from a student perspective? Did you face specific challenges?

DR: The final year of my PhD program is a bit of blur, actually. I am not sure when I slept. From a student perspective it seemed to me par for the course. I was extremely busy, but I don’t think any more so than my lab mates and colleagues – you just work steadily and grind it out. I actually really enjoyed the process of getting the company started while I was finishing up my academic requirements. Mixed things up a bit, I suppose, and kept everything interesting.

GK: Mentors and networking are important for young entrepreneurs. Are there people who have guided you along the way? How did you build your network as a student? Were there any unexpected benefits that came from networking?

DR: Networking is absolutely essential for young entrepreneurs. It sometimes sounds silly – network, network, network – but in the end it is the folks you surround yourself with that will make or break getting the company off the ground. Again, having worked in industry before grad school helped me a lot. I had the advantage of already having built up a network of scientists, [business development] folks and mentors. The CEO of the company I worked at before heading off to grad school, for example, was always willing to sit down and listen to my ideas and plans and give advice. Many other folks along the way also provided new contacts and assistance. These were folks I had interacted with at conferences, or past collaborations. Some of my mentors I simply met through friends and family. During grad school there were many opportunities to meet with folks who were more than happy to help out. I would attend lectures and seminars around company building. Many universities, including UC Berkeley, are beginning to provide services and solutions for spinning out technology. I tapped all of these.

GK: How important are management skills in a startup, and how can scientists develop these skills? What else should aspiring entrepreneurs learn that is not taught in school?

DR: Initially management skills, for me, weren’t important right out of the gate, as I was the only employee and I really didn’t give it that much thought. However, over time as the company grew, my management tasks grew accordingly. I was forced to develop management skills on the fly and just learned things along the way. I read a bunch of books, some useful, many not. While I was in grad school I did have the opportunity to manage an undergrad researcher – a very useful learning experience. It’s funny, but really I just take everything I liked from past managers I have worked under and try to apply those principles to how I manage my own team. Being a great manager is an evolving process for me, and I am constantly being challenged. Getting honest feedback from your team and being willing to adapt accordingly is essential for entrepreneurs who find themselves in a management role for the first time.

GK: Your company uses a platform technology. Can you speak about distinguishing a platform from a product? How has this affected your startup’s path?

DR: There are different pools of money that one can access if you are a platform company or a product company. Most investors have a preference of one path over the other, and it is important to identify funding opportunities that fit your path forward and not to try to force your company down a path that may not be a fit for your team and not play into your strengths. We tried a number of variations on our company theme, spinning it as a product play, and failed to garner any interest or attention from investors. We weren’t a product play, and it was painfully apparent. The problem was that we hadn’t properly identified the groups that would be interested in a platform company. Being a platform company also requires a more outward-looking approach to building a business. Building collaborations and partnerships consumes more of your resources and bandwidth, as opposed to focusing on developing a product.