Tech transfer Finnegan seeks to jump-start entrepreneurship at MUSC

Tom Finnegan became director of the MUSC Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship this summer and has been working with researchers and clinicians to get their devices, therapies or software -- like Dr. Larry Field's and Senior Systems Engineer Mike McEvoy's vitals-tracking operating room iPad app -- into commercial use. (Grace Beahm/postandcourier.com)

G. Thomas Finnegan III was all business as he introduced himself to a group of Medical University of South Carolina faculty last month.

A veteran biotech entrepreneur and investor, Finnegan said he has seen ideas and technology go from the university lab bench into commercial ventures.

And he’s seen it happen at MUSC, but not nearly as often, as smoothly or as successfully as elsewhere.

Finnegan plainly stated the reality of the university’s tech transfer process: It needs help.

“MUSC is late to the game,” Finnegan said. “We’re far behind.”

Every other university is leveraging its research for business purposes, he told the group. As the new director of MUSC’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurialism, Finnegan’s job and goal is to get his hometown institution up to snuff.

Unlike the university’s Foundation for Research and Development, which is in charge of deciding which MUSC technology to support with patent execution and then commercial negotiations, the center’s role is to nurture entrepreneurship and “bring resources in,” Finnegan said.

The 45-year-old father of three described himself as a “liaison between the faculty and the outside world and the commercialization world.”

So far, that has meant meetings on top of meetings with curious researchers and clinicians and phone calls with out-of-state venture capitalists. But he said he’s holding off on hosting potential investors and partners until MUSC is ready.

“I am trying to get this house in order,” he said. “Right now, the drapes aren’t up, the pictures are sitting on the floor. We can’t operate like that.”

Tutoring scientists in the ways of term sheets and intellectual property law while also contending with a glacial-speed bureaucracy might sound like a chore. But Finnegan discusses his work and plans with nearly the same enthusiasm as his first gator-hunting experience recently. “It’s not work for me, It’s more fun,” he said. “The hardest part for me is not jumping on one of these (biotechnologies) and going with it.”

The Charleston-born son of an orthodontist and a history teacher, Finnegan remembers reading the stock tables to his dad on the ride to school. He bought his first stock at 9 and now talks finance and real estate with his young sons.

Whereas the elder Finnegan studied business on the side, young Tom pursued a pre-med course in college before deciding dealmaking was more his bag.

Finnegan worked as an investment banker on Wall Street for more than a decade, mostly at Merrill Lynch, then, after earning his MBA at Emory University, at S.G. Cowen & Co. He also served as vice president of finance for Introgen Therapeutics in Austin, Texas, before striking out on his own with several small biotech companies, either that he co-founded or in which he invested.

With success, Finnegan also admits some outcomes closer to failure, a fact of start-up life. In one case, Finnegan and his scientist partner, Steve Brostoff, licensed technology from the University of Utah to launch Surfagen. It didn’t work as expected, but it took only $75,000 to figure that out, Finnegan said.

In another instance, Finnegan recalled investing only a third of that total before a sleep apnea treatment, Diagnose IT, couldn’t produce measurable results.

This kind of experience has allowed Finnegan to say he’s “been on both sides of the table.” He also had worked informally for MUSC before being offered the full-time position this spring and starting work in August.

Whereas licensing technology from the University of Utah had been “seamless,” Finnegan said, licensing from MUSC made him want to come in and “make this place better.”

He seems to have hit the ground running. Operating out of a bare-walled temporary office on the first floor of MUSC’s new bioengineering building, Finnegan reports holding “100-and-something meetings since I’ve been here.”

Through those chats, he’s come to realize MUSC’s potentially marketable technologies — health care software, medical devices and the like — are at an earlier stage than he’d expected. “I don’t have things I can even sell yet,” he said.

He’s working with the MUSC research foundation to streamline the process out of the university, such as shortening the time it takes to obtain a nondisclosure agreement from a few weeks to a few days.

He’s still figuring out the center’s staff and budget and what other kinds of programs, such as establishing an entrepreneur-in-residence position, he can line up.

Finnegan said he knows plenty of businesses get seed money from SC Launch, the S.C. Research Authority’s small-scale venture program, and then get “stuck at this important level,” he said. The inventor has a patent but may need several hundred thousand dollars to get to a fundable proof of concept, Finnegan said.

So he’s targeting mid- to large-size biotech companies and venture capitalists to help bridge that gap while offering tips for potential start-ups.

Capitalizing a business is not the same as getting money for academic research from the National Institutes of Health, he told the faculty.

“The NIH business plans you write are not business plans,” Finnegan said. Grants will not grow a business fast enough, and if he doesn’t understand the gist of the science, his former peers in the investment world won’t either, he counseled.

To the faculty, Finnegan pitched the innovation center as the first stop for entrepreneurs and as their on-campus safe house.

“Go ahead and tell me what your problems are,” he said to chuckles from the academics crowded into the first-floor library seminar room.

Among that group, Joseph Helpern, a professor of radiology, was the most vocal, differentiating his experience at New York University from what he has found at MUSC.

Here, he said, the university is promoting entrepreneurship while also penalizing professors for their business work on state time and by not promoting them.

“We have to change that,” he said.

“You can have it both ways,” Helpern continued. “These incentivization issues are really important to the faculty.”

Finnegan said he’s heard about faculty getting punished if they go off on the entrepreneurial track, losing their path to tenure or promotions. He hopes he can effect a culture shift. He has the blessing of the senior administration.

In keeping with his emphasis on speed-to-market, Finnegan hinted that he won’t be around long, calling his job a “short-term project.” He said he had been up front with his new bosses about how long he would be sticking around: “a couple of years,” then, after a pause, “three, four years, maybe let’s say five years at the max.”

Then, like his other ventures, he’ll pass it off to the next guy.

“It’s a start-up,” he said.

Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.