Robert Green began his career in the corporate department of a major New York law firm, far from the deserts of southern Arizona and the world of biotech. He orchestrated major corporate transactions and represented high-net-worth clients, including a substantial number of celebrities.
After eight years, he decided it was time for a change, and left the firm to join an investment management company, and it was not long before he felt the need to pursue projects of his own. His first venture brought him to a biotechnology company in Tucson. Robert has remained in that field–and that city–ever since, founding companies specializing in biotechnology; investment and management; diagnostics and testing; laboratory development and construction; and novel medical devices.
Today, Robert is the founder and president of Integrated Biomolecule Corporation (IBC), an organization that spans two different but synergistic fields: analytical testing and organic chemistry. Begun in Robert’s house and followed by a stint as the first tenant at the University of Arizona Science and Technology Park, IBC will soon relocate to a new 18,000-square-foot facility in southern Arizona’s emerging tech hotspot, Oro Valley.
Robert is a magna cum laude graduate of City University of New York, and graduated with honors from Fordham University School of Law. He writes extensively in industry publications and holds several patents. In addition to being named a 2001 Entrepreneurial Fellow by the University of Arizona School of Business, he recently received a 2003 Spirit of Success Award from Governor Janet Napolitano. Robert currently serves as vice chair of Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap Steering Committee, the group overseeing the state’s long-term biosciences strategy.
You began your career as an attorney, specializing in corporate law. What made you decide to move into creating and operating companies?
My plan out of law school was to get legal experience and then move into corporate management, because I thought operating a company was what “business” was all about. I was fortunate to land a job at a major New York law firm where I specialized in corporate matters, primarily mergers, acquisitions, and financings. This was during the go-go days of the 1980s when corporate transactions occurred at a frenzied pace (I can’t count the number of times I would arrive at work, learn a client decided on a major corporate transaction, hop on a plane and not return home for several days). I was having a blast, but eventually that entrepreneurial bug started to bite.
In retrospect my plan was dead-on. In today’s complicated world legal issues dominate everything. Creating corporations, filing patents, entering joint venture agreements, hiring employees, fighting with vendors, all require legal skills. I could never have created and operated the entities I have been involved with if I had to pay a lawyer to do the work!
How did you come to focus on the biotechnology and laboratory industries?
Serendipity. I left the law firm to join a major client that put me to work running several businesses. They also controlled a bankrupt biotech company in Tucson that was scheduled to close its doors. I came out to take a look and, while not having any biotech knowledge, thought there had to be some value there. So with my employer’s blessing I took control of the company. It had enough cash for two more months, so I figured either a miracle would occur or I would shut the doors. Well, two months turned into three very trying years. Each month we were able to earn just enough money to make it to the next month (even selling the chain link fence one month to raise enough cash for payroll). Eventually we sold the company to a Maryland biotech firm. That struggle taught me lessons that still pay dividends.
Tell us about your company, Integrated Biomolecule Corporation (IBC).
IBC is a unique organization with a unique approach. The typical business plan for a biotech start-up follows a “home run” scenario; raise large sums of money, use that money to fund tremendous growth (while incurring significant losses) and hope you can hit a home run by either selling the business or raising additional funds before your cash runs dry. When successful this approach can yield spectacular gains, but it has many disadvantages.
With IBC we took a different tack that I call the “biotech bootstrap approach.” Instead of starting off in grand style, we lived within our means. Initially IBC was a virtual company headquartered in my home. We would get chemical orders and fill them either by having the products made at a laboratory or purchasing them from someone else. The business grew, and we reached a point where we could support our own lab and staff. We rented adequate space and made minimal alterations. We bought used equipment instead of leasing new. And we kept our overhead low. The goal was to create a business that would sustain itself on its own earnings and not be forced to rely on outside sources. It was not easy at first, but it worked.
Our company is built on three guiding principles: provide great science; provide great client service; and provide a great place to work. I am proud that we accomplish all three.
And your business activities?
IBC started with our biomolecule program. We conduct research, development, manufacturing and analysis of biomolecules (that is, compounds with biological activity) for the pharmaceutical and diagnostic industries. Most of this effort involves synthesizing in the laboratory compounds for potential use in the human body as pharmaceutical or diagnostic products. Our clients include established pharmaceutical companies and young biotech ventures on science’s cutting edge. We also have our own R & D program in which we are developing novel technologies including an exciting drug delivery system.
We have developed technologies and expertise that enable us to produce the most difficult compounds that others struggle with. This includes our proprietary computer network known as the Smart Synthetic SystemTM, which designs the synthesis protocol step by step for maximum efficiency. Hopefully, one or more of these compounds will become future blockbuster drugs or diagnostic agents. We call this division IBC Organics.
To provide biomolecules of the quality and sophistication required for pharmaceutical and diagnostic purposes, exceptional analytical capabilities are a must. This led to the creation of IBC Labs, a full service analytical testing lab. We test nutritional supplements, foods, research samples, fuels, and other commodities using the most sophisticated techniques available.
In the nutritional supplement area we test vitamins, minerals, and herbs. First, we will analyze the raw materials to insure they meet specifications, and then we test the finished products to insure proper manufacturing. For example, if the label on a vitamin bottle says each capsule contains 50 milligrams of vitamin C, we will test the product to see that it does. We possess the technology to take your typical multi-vitamin with, say, 30 active ingredients, separate and then measure them. We deal with infinitesimal amounts in multi-component mixtures, many of which interfere with each other. It is truly the application of high science and technology, and with it we have been a leading force in improving supplement quality.
I can say without hesitation that both divisions are the very best in their respective industries. And being entrepreneurs at heart, we are always looking for additional business opportunities.
While we build our company we never forget that the key to its success is the staff. A company is nothing more than a legal creation, and a facility is just bricks and mortar. Neither makes a business, for it is the staff that makes it happen. A harder working, more dedicated group does not exist anywhere. %pagebreak%
Lack of adequate wet lab space and research facilities is often cited as a key weakness in Arizona, particularly in Tucson. Tell us a little about how you addressed your own needs with IBC , and what you think needs to be done to secure the future for other bio startups.
Around 1994, when IBC outgrew my home, we had a business, a small staff, and a few bucks, but there was no lab space available in Tucson and we did not have sufficient capital to build one. We were in a big jam until we learned about the plan for the Arizona Board of Regents to acquire the IBM Tucson facility and turn it into a research park. I knew that the IBM facility had labs in place and we had to get in. We were lucky; the deal was consummated and the lab space was made available to us. If it were not for that lab space there might be no IBC today.
We flourished at the Tech Park, and about three years ago it became clear we were running out of room at our current location. A new facility would require sophisticated laboratories, and it made economic sense to build them in our own building. After deciding to stay in Tucson we scoured the area and found the new Rancho Vistoso Technology Park in Oro Valley, which is at the Northwest end of Tucson. There we found a town that shares our vision of a high tech future and together we embarked on turning our dream of a new facility into reality. We will be joining our friends at Ventana Medical Systems at the Technology Park, which we are convinced will become the next high tech center in Tucson.
As to our new facility, it consists of 18,000 square feet initially configured for seven state-of-the-art laboratories (including a clean room), with room for a tenant which will serve as future expansion space. The “smart building” features the latest technology, including computer-controlled environmental, fire suppression, and security systems; a laboratory information system; and robotics. The building’s completion is scheduled for late December 2003.
Our story reveals the critical importance a laboratory facility plays in the creation and growth of biotech ventures. Because of the sophisticated and expensive nature of a laboratory facility, a new venture cannot (and, if you subscribe to the “biotech bootstrap approach,” should not) build one. Therefore, if we hope to create an environment where new biotech ventures are created and blossom, we must find a way to make laboratory space available. However, this should not give anyone carte blanche to build laboratory buildings on the theory that “if you build them, they will come.” We must accurately assess the need, and then meet that need in the most efficient manner.
What made you decide to keep your business in Arizona? Did you ever feel a pull toward other bioscience clusters, such as Boston or San Diego?
Relocation was a serious issue as we formulated our plan to build a facility. Three opposing forces were at work. First was the pull to join our colleagues in a more developed biotech hub, such as San Diego (being from the east, Boston, with its cold winters, was never a consideration). Second was the tug from states with more favorable business environments, especially in terms of business taxes, which are a serious burden when you are in a growth mode. And third was the fact that Tucson is our home. In the end, Tucson won handily.
This is a great time to be in biotechnology in Arizona. When we first arrived in Arizona in the late 1980s, few knew what biotechnology was and fewer cared. Interest increased in recent years, resulting in the creation of TGen. Now we have reached a new plateau, where our government and citizenry realize not only that biotechnology is a key to improving our lives, but it is also a key to our future economic well being. We have great confidence that, if we all work hard together, Arizona can become a significant biotech hub. We now work to eliminate the Arizona negatives so Arizona biotech firms can flourish and not be enticed elsewhere.
Do you have any advice for budding biotech entrepreneurs?
Don’t overextend. Entrepreneurs with a hot biotech idea have the ability to raise large sums. Many times this is more money than they ever dreamed they could control. This can lead to a feeling of omnipotenceâ€”that the money raised will last indefinitely, and when it does run out getting more will be easy. So money is spent lavishly on great offices, the latest equipment, and a large staff.
Fast forward to when reality hits. Early spending means the funds may run out before the project has advanced to the point where additional fundraising is possible. Second-round investors do not care about fancy offices; that may actually be a cause for concern. They want to see the project advancing with management exercising sound business judgment. Don’t be a flame-out.
As vice chair of Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap Steering Committee, what do you see as the key ingredients for growing Arizona’s bioscience and biotechnology sectors?
For Arizona to succeed in building a biotech sector we need to focus on two areas: creating a favorable environment to establish new entities, and nurturing established entities so they succeed in the long run. For both areas the three state universities, state legislature, and private sector all have important roles to play.
The universities are clearly the engines that drive this train. They need to continue their efforts to get novel technology into the marketplace. But there’s more. They possess incalculable “brain power.” University staffs know about emerging technologies, the demand for goods and services, and grant and contract opportunities. We need to pair up University staff and private enterprise to exploit this for everyone’s advantage.
The state legislature needs to continue its critical role of improving our business climate. This will foster both the creation of new businesses and their ultimate success.
And the private sector needs to work together, to share ideas and to take advantage of opportunities. As the old adage goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
Biotechnology is now justifiably in the Arizona limelight with many exciting developments underway. All of us at Integrated Biomolecule are grateful for the opportunity to play a part.