Regis Kelly is the Director of QB3, the only one of the four California Institutes for Science and Innovation devoted exclusively to biology and the life sciences. He oversees an innovation center comprised of more than 200 quantitative biologists at three northern California campuses (UCB, UCSC & UCSF) who are converting discoveries into practical benefits for society.
Previously, Kelly was Executive Vice Chancellor at the University of California in San Francisco, responsible for the new Mission Bay campus, which is the center of academic planning for a 300-acre public/private biomedical research park in San Francisco. He also served as Chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UCSF; was the Director of UCSF’s Cell Biology Graduate Program; and was the Director of the Hormone Research Institute at UCSF. Today he remains Chairman Emeritus of the Bay Area Scientific Innovation Consortium (BASIC), is on the Malaysian Prime Minister’s Biotechnology Advisory Panel, and is a General Partner of Mission Bay Capital venture fund.
TEDMED: What’s the most remarkable innovation you are seeing in health tech or medicine, and what is driving it?
Kelly: Longevity research. You’ve probably heard about Calico, founded by Google, to stop or reverse the aging process. It’s a very exciting area with a surprising amount of progress being made.
We’re looking at cases where we medically accelerate the aging process, as measured by cognitive loss. For instance, elderly patients who undergo hip surgery or knee surgery are liable to suffer a severe cognitive loss. Radiation therapy on the brain, a traumatic brain injury, or a severe infection can also lead to cognitive loss. In the cases we’ve measured, the cognitive loss is caused by the way the immune system affects your hippocampus. And the mechanisms involved in medically accelerated cognitive loss are, as well as we can tell, identical to the normal process of aging in the brain. If we could slow down accelerated cognitive loss, I’m very confident those therapies would be beneficial for long-term cognitive loss, such as in Alzheimer’s.
This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff. At QB3 we have potential therapies in the pipeline and a pathway we can see getting into humans to test longevity. We’re talking about how we can get very close to an IND for phase 1 trials.
What is driving this is bringing together fields that hadn’t previously interacted. Normally, if you’re a neurobiologist then you spend your life in the neurobiology community; if you’re an immunologist, you do the same; and if you’re an imaging person or a physicist, you hardly talk to anyone else. Now, a marvelous synthesis among immunology, neurobiology, and imaging is producing spectacular results.
TEDMED: What’s the most important factor for entrepreneurial success in health tech—and is that different from your own key to success?
Kelly: We have 100 companies in the QB3 incubator right now, and we look at lots of companies that apply to our venture fund. We are always more responsive and excited about a company when there is clear passion from the founder or entrepreneur. If you come up with a great idea and you don’t have passion, then when something goes wrong you won’t fight through it to the end. People have to be prepared to pivot and change and adapt. It’s really about people with a commitment to making it happen.
The other thing necessary to successful entrepreneurship is people skills. Someone can’t start a company if they can’t build and work with other people. If they have ego problems and it’s all about them, it’s doesn’t work. People who can really build teams and teams that clearly love the leader work well. That’s a prognosticator that the company is going to succeed.
Of course, you’ve got to have an idea; almost everyone has a new idea in a new market. But the things that impress us are passion and people skills as well as the idea.
Is that different from my own key to success? Yes, on my good days, those are probably the keys to my success.
TEDMED: For entrepreneurs with needle-moving ideas in global health, what are the keys to finding collaborators and supporters across specialties, industries, and geographies?
Kelly: This is entrepreneurship 101, but you must identify your customers and know that your product is what they want and will pay for. Selling life sciences products is not like selling iPhones. You must be careful about working on your reimbursement mechanisms and find out: is this really needed, by how many people, and who is going to pay for it?
In digital health people will often say, “Well, I hired a doctor,” or “I have a doctor friend,” or “I have a doctor on my panel and he’s going to tell me how to do it.” That doesn’t work. You need to talk to many doctors. The Lean Launch Pad insists, for instance, that you talk to 100 customers before they go ahead with your company.
Finding collaborators in other specialties is really important, and is a huge challenge. Trying to match someone with brilliant scientific insights or access to a new disruptive technology with someone who understands how to run a business is what we call “the Boyer-Swanson problem.” The fortuitous thing that made it possible for Herb Boyer, a scientist who was in my department at UCSF, to start Genentech was that he ran into the young entrepreneur Robert Swanson, who knew nothing about molecular biology, but knew about starting companies. The two of them together got Genentech off the ground. Very few scientists have business acumen; 90 percent of the time, you need a Boyer-Swanson match, and finding that is hard.
The Swansons—the people with managerial and organizational skills—are people who just like starting small companies. They love the excitement of starting something from nothing and seeing something with 30 percent probability of success coming to an exit in 5 years. They like the whole process and being surrounded by other people with that passion. They’re serial entrepreneurs; you’ve got to get them between companies. It’s like getting to people between marriages.
TEDMED: In 2020, you’re asked to give a TEDMED talk about the biggest transformation you helped bring about in your field. What is it?
Kelly: I’d love to be talking about how we put together this consortium that’s producing drugs that are reducing cognitive loss and affecting longevity. In six years we’re not going to have those in the clinic, but we certainly could have them clinical in trials.
Also, I’m excited about helping to transform American research universities to work better with the private sector. I’d like the boundary between universities and early startups in the incubator space to be so porous as to be nonexistent. Not only would we be feeding people into these entrepreneurial incubators, but also we would be hearing back from them what academics should be studying.
This is what QB3 is trying to do. If we could say that this QB3-type idea has spread so that 50 percent of universities in America are doing something like this, then that would be a major contribution to society.