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The Next Big Idea: A Successful Founder Turned San Diego Investor

The Next Big Idea: A Successful Founder Turned San Diego Investor
The Next Big Idea: A Successful Founder Turned San Diego Investor GUEST: Mark Bowles, co-founder, ecoATM

>> Startups out there and going public in a big way lately, the online storage site dropbox debuted on the NASDAQ exchange late last month. Its shares sold are prices that make the whole company worth more than $11 billion. The music app, spot if I is now worth more than $26 billion after it's initial public offering a few weeks ago. Every billion-dollar company has to start somewhere. San Diego's startup Vega therapeutics could be that next big idea. Mid-day addition producer Michael spoke with its cofounder and CEO, Anna Maria. >> Let's start with the problem that your company is trying to solve. >> There is a huge ordeal -- opioid epidemic. The only solution out there currently are opioid drugs, and we have seen in the past decade, there has been a 300% increase in opioid prescriptions without any change in pain level. Everyone in four people are prescribed opioids become addicted. We have seen five people die each day of opioid overdose. >> What is the solution that led you to start this? >> I am currently working in a lab, we are focusing on aging, this gene is famous because there are people that have a mutation in this gene, that feel no pain whatsoever. We targeted the same gene, in the lab in mice, and we have demonstrated that these mice have a higher pain tolerance, and a lower pain sensitive activity. We thought we could use this therapy that people suffer from chronic pain. Here she would go into the doctor's office, they would have an injection, similar to an epidural. It would last between six and eight weeks. >> These people that have this mutation naturally, of this gene, what are their day-to-day lives like? They don't feel pain all? >> Correct. Since they were children, they have this mutation. Obviously when you are a child, it is not something you want. A lot of them end up with a lot of cuts, and broken bones. What we are doing, is that it is not a permanent change in this gene. People will still be able to feel normal touch. They will have a higher pain tolerance and they won't feel pain. But they will be able to feel something that might be dangerous. [ Booing ] your currently studying bioengineering, why not pursue an academic path to study this path property. Opposed to doing the private sector. >> I want to be more in that space of more translational, so something that is closer to the patient. Sometimes when you're a scientist, you publish a lot, but you don't see that go through, into a clinic. So for me, it is more motivating to hopefully help someone more immediately, then doing some of this basic science that does advance the field, and is very much necessary. >> You are telling me earlier about entrepreneurship, maybe it runs in your family a little bit? >> Grandparents, my dad himself, my brother went to Stanford, he started his company, he is doing underwater robotics. My dad always gave us this advice of keep your eyes open, to see whether there is opportunities out there. Where you can create your own company, because if you are passionate about something, you will be happy to go to work, and work that much harder. Also I grew up in Mexico, and people have this idea of it doesn't matter if you are an architect or engineer, you're not going to be paid enough. You have to think about other avenues of generating income. That is why a lot of my family members have their own companies in Mexico. >> Take us inside a startup that is sort of just on the ground floor. What does it look like being in the stages of all of this? >> I am currently a PhD student trying to start a company of the same time. What is great about being in the University, is that there is all of these resources I can take advantage of. There is the school of business there, I actually have two other people that joined the company with me. One of them is a bioengineered graduating student. The other one is a post op scripts. Right now we are trying to do around one of funding. We are looking out more of a funding coming from small business and research grants. What that means, is that you don't have to give anyone equity. You can use that money to fund your research. We are doing pitch competitions. I am the one that has to go out there and embarrass myself and learn from each different competition and get better. It is definitely a learning experience each step of the way. >> How much money are you targeting to raise? >> We're looking a $2 million. We are done with our small animal model research that has been done in the lab, we wanted to go into larger animal models, and I would for C around two years, for $2 million for two years, after which we would submit an application to the FDA, for a new investigational drug, and then we will look for more money obviously to fund human trials. >> A lot of pitch competitions give maybe $10,000, $50,000 if it is a really big one? You would have to win a lot competitions to get to 2 million. >> Correct. That is why we are not only looking out pitch competitions, but the grants, they fund up to $2 million actually. These pitch competitions, it adds up. I don't want to say no to any kind of money obviously. So, that is the stage we are out. >> What have you learned from giving your pitch, to investors a couple dozen times that these competitions, what have you had to tweak in the way you initially presented your idea? >> First of all, I can tell I'm a scientist, I need to communicate better. Some of them are not scientists. Also more of the business model, going more in depth into what are we actually thinking of doing, in the next few years. We thought that it was very obvious. Pharmaceutical drugs, everybody kind of understand, but you still have to explain yourself well. Also, I do get nervous, and I need to figure out how to calm my nerves down, it is something that you get better each time. >> What happens if one of your clinical trials along the way doesn't get the results you are looking for, does that basically mean the end of the company? >> A lot of companies do go to clinical trial and then have to reapply to go through it again. I also believe that this therapy is so powerful that it could work for veterinary purposes. Even if it didn't work in humans, if it does work in large animals, that is another avenue we can look out. I never see it as a failure, obviously in science, anything you learn creates value to that specific kind of therapy. >> That was therapeutics founder and CEO, Anna Maria. Speaking with producer, Michael. We have one final part in our series, the next big idea. To hear from one of San Diego's most successful entrepreneurs, listen to the midday addition podcast, or visit our website.

The $350 million sale of ecoATM in 2013 was one of San Diego’s biggest tech exits in years. The former startup was behind the now-ubiquitous mall kiosks that pay users cash for their old smartphones and helps recycle them.

It was the most successful company yet for co-founder Mark Bowles, a former executive at Motorola in the early 1990s.

“A Motorola business card was magic back then. It let you get a PhD in Silicon Valley,” Bowles said. “Everyone needed Motorola product. It was a golden ticket to just get exposed to the back lab of every company.”


Bowles saw a lot of startups with that exposure and decided that world was more attractive than a traditional corporate career.

“They were having way more fun, and they had a lottery ticket, too,” he said.

The Next Big Idea: On The Ground Floor Of A Potential Biotech Giant

Bowles has raised more than $250 million for the half-dozen or so companies he’s helped found, but none were as lucrative as ecoATM. While one had a buyout offer in the hundreds of millions, according to Bowles, he turned it down in 2000, right before the tech bubble burst. Bowles and his management team ended up selling the company’s assets 18 months later for $3 million to help retire $2 million in debt.

“I’ve left two different $80 million, six year, hundred engineer smoking holes in the ground. Those hurt,” Bowles said. “But it’s part of the journey.”


Bowles has focused more on investing his own money lately, given his ecoATM windfall. He likes to invest in local startups, but he rejects the idea that San Diego startups have a tough time raising money even when compared to the Bay area. San Diego startups raised $1.9 billion in venture capital funding last year, the sixth highest investment total per capita in the world.

“We’ve got to stop beating ourselves up in San Diego that it’s somehow the backwoods and you can’t get money here,” Bowles said. “That’s an excuse for people who have failed at going and doing what a lot of people do.”

Bowles joins KPBS Midday Edition’s series The Next Big Idea to discuss how he learned from his failures and the basic skills some founders lack.