"Enabling awesome" at Refactored Materials

Refactored hopes to hit it big with artificial spider silk. The critter shown is a Florida golden orb weaver, which the startup uses to produce silk for calibrating its equipment. Photo: Christine Fu

How much time per day do you spend “enabling awesome?”

“Most of the day,” says Dan Widmaier, CEO of startup Refactored Materials, created with the aim of manufacturing spider silk on a commercial scale. At a recent QED seminar (January 5 at UCSF Mission Bay), Dan recounted his journey from having an idea to forming a company.

While in the PhD Program in Chemistry and Chemical Biology at UCSF, Dan and fellow student Ethan Mirsky in Chris Voigt’s lab developed techniques harnessing Salmonella to produce spider silk, a material prized for unparalleled strength and toughness. Berkeley student David Breslauer came on board in 2009, and the three launched a company to engineer ideal silk proteins using Dan and Ethan’s synthetic biology know-how, and spin them into fibers using David’s microfluidics expertise.

The trio started applying for grants to raise seed capital. Both their NSF and Army SBIR applications were funded, despite the < 20% success rate, and they also won a Catalyst Grant from QB3. They started operations at the QB3 Garage@UCSF in 2010 with $600k. Speaking of differences between government grants and venture funding, Dan appreciated the freedom provided by the former in exploring their direction (“take our hammer and go searching for nails”). By contrast, Dan cautioned, with additional investors comes greater pressure and much less leeway for trial and error. The company recently landed a Series A round, and relocated into the QB3/Mission Bay Innovation Center.

Addressing many graduate students in the audience, Dan stressed the importance of a personal “exit strategy.” Juggling the need to publish, satisfy the advisor/committee and run a company can be highly stressful. Your graduation timeline and transition into full-time commitment with the company need to be planned well in advance. The timing worked out perfectly for them, but theirs is an atypical example, Dan warned.

David Breslauer and Ethan Mirsky, co-founders of Refactored. Photo: Christine Fu

Ethan and David, who sat in the front row, shared an obvious rapport with Dan, driving home his point about selecting the right people to be co-founders. All three agreed on taking the advice from other people (including themselves) with a grain of salt and only cherry-picking those that apply to you. “This is a story, not a road map,” Dan added. Lessons he learned include the slower and nonlinear maturation curve of biotech versus tech companies, as well as modest control over timing. He suggested that you should be prepared to bring in people with non-technical expertise, be flexible, and anticipate your ideal role from the early stages.

In terms of grant application tips, knowing the program managers is on top of Dan’s list. They differ greatly in their inclination to fund risky proposals. It’s essential to tailor your application to the appropriate section. He also suggested picking the brains of previous awardees, and checking in with funding agencies frequently to keep abreast of their shifting priorities.

For venture capital funding strategy, one secret weapon is to play hard to get. That ties in with the “most important piece of advice in the history of advice” according to Dan: take a negotiation class! All three have found it paid off tremendously when engaging investors. You, too, can enable awesome: for more information on the course they took, click here.