Editor’s note: This story was reported from the 2014 BIO International Convention in San Diego.
By Jim Stafford
Copyright © 2014, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
SAN DIEGO — There were some natural concerns among Oklahomans back in 1998 when Texas native Tommy Harlan put together a venture capital fund and began investing in life science startups spun out of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
“We had some early pushback,” Harlan said of the resistance to the investments that Austin, Texas-based Emergent Technologies made in the Oklahoma startups. “Stakeholders who live and reside in Oklahoma aren’t going to welcome with open arms a Texan because of the Red River Rivalry.”
Harlan heard it all. There were fears that Emergent would license the technologies from OU and build the companies and create jobs south of the Red River. There were fears that it would encourage the OU scientists who created the intellectual property to relocate, as well.
None of that happened.
Emergent and its management team have built eight Oklahoma companies based on technologies developed by Paul DeAngelis and William Hildebrand, both Ph.D. scientists and professors at the OU Health Sciences Center.
“As a matter of fact, we have debunked that myth because we have created a lot of jobs in Oklahoma, we haven’t taken the technologies out of state, we haven’t recruited the scientists out of the university,” Harlan said. “It’s really the opposite.”
Harlan describes Emergent as an “affinity fund” where many of the investors are OU alumni.
“There are eight scientists in Paul’s labs who could be in other states, but are here because we created the opportunity to keep them,” he said. “So we’ve kept our promises to Oklahoma stakeholders.”
Caisson Biotech, LLC, a company built on DeAngelis’s work with sugar molecules, recently licensed its patented heparosan-based drug delivery technology, HEPtune, to Novo Nordisk in a deal valued up to $167 million.
“I’m a scientist, not trained in economics,” DeAngelis said. “Emergent is bringing together the ability to raise money, to negotiate deals, to build a good technology portfolio with patents. Having them on board lets me stay a scientist.”
Another Oklahoma Emergent portfolio company, based on Hildebrand technologies, Pure MLC, signed a cancer drug deal last fall with Catalent Pharma Solutions.
“We’ve created jobs here, we’ve created wealth here, we’ve written checks for over $2 million to OU in the last 12 months,” Harland said. “That’s just license fees and OU’s share of the loot on a few deals.”
The Emergent team was among the most heavily booked this year for partnering meetings at the OKBio booth at this year’s convention, which Harlan called a “Godsend.”
“I want to say a big ‘thank you’ to all the Oklahoma stakeholders,” Harlan said. “The corollary is running all over this train station from one booth to the next and not having enough time to present and not having enough privacy to present. I think the booth gives Oklahoma a lot of bioscience presence internationally, too. It’s a win-win.”