Marvin Caruthers’ forte: Converting lab research into commercial ventures

BOULDER — Chances are when you come across a successful biotech company in the Boulder Valley, Marvin Caruthers had a hand in it.

So said Kyle Lefkoff, partner with Boulder Ventures Ltd., who has worked with Caruthers for about 15 years.

Lefkoff couldn’t be happier to see Caruthers, professor of biochemistry and bio-organic chemistry at the University of Colorado at Boulder, win the Boulder Chamber of Commerce’s 2003 Esprit Entrepreneur Lifetime Achievement award.

The two have collaborated on launching numerous biotech startups from old-timers Ribozyme Pharmaceuticals Inc. and NeXstar Pharmaceuticals Inc. to youngsters Dharmacon Research Inc. and Array BioPharma Inc.

The relationship began in the 1980s when Caruthers was chairman of the chemistry and biochemistry department at CU, and Lefkoff was managing the University Research Corp., a subsidiary of the CU Foundation that invested in technology transfer startup companies based on the discoveries of CU faculty. Now, that activity is handled by CU’s Technology Transfer Office.

Caruthers had been at CU since 1973 and was already well-known in the commercial biotech community for developing a method of chemically synthesizing DNA. The method still is used in most labs that work with synthetic DNA.

Caruthers had successfully commercialized his invention via two startups — Applied Biosystems (now part of Norwalk, Conn.-based Applera Corp.), which manufacturers DNA synthesizing equipment, and Amgen Inc., which develops drugs using recombinant DNA technology.

So when Caruthers came to Lefkoff with the idea to start companies based on work going on in the department’s labs, “We believed he was the right guy to make those types of decisions,” Lefkoff said. Caruthers helped spin off the work of professor Larry Gold into NeXagen (which became NeXstar Pharmaceuticals and is now part of Foster City, Calif.-based Gilead Sciences) and the work of Nobel Prize winner and professor Tom Cech into Ribozyme Pharmaceuticals (now Sirna Therapeutics Inc., still in Boulder).

Not only was this a coup for the inventors, Lefkoff said, it was a gold mine for the chemistry and biochemistry department.

“The department gets one-quarter of the license revenues so he had an important part to play,” Lefkoff said.

When Lefkoff started Boulder Ventures in 1995, Caruthers became a founding investor and a founding member of the company’s investment committee. Together they founded bioinformatics company Genomica Corp. (bought by San Francisco-based Exelixis Inc. in 2001), Lafayette-based synthetic RNA developer Dharmacon and Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Amgen spinoff, Array BioPharma of Boulder.

What makes Marv run?

It’s unusual for an ivory-tower academic to venture into the private sector without a bit of prodding, but Caruthers likes “working both sides of the street,” he said. He owned “a good part” of BioStar Inc., a Boulder-based clinical diagnostic company acquired by Thermo Electron Corp. in Waltham, Mass. He had a hand in Nanosphere Inc., a Chicago-based company that develops molecular-level testing systems. He helped Ancora Pharmaceuticals, a Boston-based student-run company, win the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s annual entrepreneurship contest last year. He even became involved with New York City-based investment banking firm Nordberg Capital Inc. and wound up as a director of a small Swedish banking firm.

“I sort of enjoy playing both games,” Caruthers said. “Sometimes the activities involved almost become unreal in terms of travel schedules and keeping up with everything.”

Caruthers’ reputation was one reason Christina Yamada chose the CU chemistry and biochemistry department for her doctoral work. All graduate students have required lab “rotations,” much like medical students, to decide where and with whom they want to work. Caruthers’ lab “was my first rotation, and I immediately knew I wanted to join the lab,” Yamada said.

Yamada thought her future was in industry, not academia. “I didn’t want to become a professor. I knew that from this lab many people got funneled right into industry. That was exciting.”

Another difference is that in Caruthers’ lab, students learn real-world skills. “I feel like I troubleshoot a lot more,” Yamada said. “We work on instrumentation unlike other labs where there are technicians or lab managers that solve those problems.”

Yamada also praised Caruthers’ management style. “He is really a great boss. The best thing about working for Marv is he knows when you need help and when you need to be left alone to solve your own problems.”

Bill Marshall, executive vice president of research and production at Dharmacon, is a Caruthers’ lab alum. It was Caruthers’ hands-off management style that sold him on working with the man.

“During my first meeting with Marv he sat down and said, ‘I’m not a guy who’s going to meet with you every day. More like once a week,'” Marshall said. “Marv continued, ‘Quite frankly, you can tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about and go and do your own work, and we’ll talk about it next week.’ I’ve tried to model my work around that.”

Caruthers also helped Marshall shape his career when he decided academia wasn’t for him. “Once I decided I wanted to take the industrial route rather than the academic route he was very able to quickly switch to giving sage advice in the business world — hot companies and hot technologies,” Marshall said. “He can understand the applicability of innovations in the business world.”

Best of both worlds

Straddling the academic and real world has been “financially beneficial,” Caruthers said. He and his wife, Jennie, formed the Caruthers Family Foundation, which focuses on helping destitute children get medical and dental care.

Caruthers said he started thinking about retiring a few years ago, but at 63 he’s “not sure I want to retire. We keep finding places to go and things to do.

“It’s fun. You lose your energy if you don’t have anything to do, quite frankly. I’ve got this long list of things I want to do.”

Lefkoff is glad his old friend wants to keep working. “What’s remarkable and unique is his combination of good business judgment and world-class entrepreneurial skills,” Lefkoff said. “We’re very fortunate this is the place he chose to ply his trade.”

BOULDER — Chances are when you come across a successful biotech company in the Boulder Valley, Marvin Caruthers had a hand in it.

So said Kyle Lefkoff, partner with Boulder Ventures Ltd., who has worked with Caruthers for about 15 years.

Lefkoff couldn’t be happier to see Caruthers, professor of biochemistry and bio-organic chemistry at the University of Colorado at Boulder, win the Boulder Chamber of Commerce’s 2003 Esprit Entrepreneur Lifetime Achievement award.

The two have collaborated on launching numerous biotech startups from old-timers Ribozyme Pharmaceuticals Inc. and NeXstar Pharmaceuticals Inc. to youngsters Dharmacon Research Inc. and Array BioPharma Inc.

The relationship began in the 1980s when Caruthers was chairman of the chemistry and biochemistry department at CU, and Lefkoff was managing the University Research Corp., a subsidiary of the CU Foundation that invested in technology transfer startup companies based on the discoveries of CU faculty. Now, that activity is handled by CU’s Technology Transfer Office.

Caruthers had been at CU since 1973 and was already well-known in the commercial biotech community for developing a method of chemically synthesizing DNA. The method still is used in most labs that work with synthetic DNA.

Caruthers had successfully commercialized his invention via two startups — Applied Biosystems (now part of Norwalk, Conn.-based Applera Corp.), which manufacturers DNA synthesizing equipment, and Amgen Inc., which develops drugs using recombinant DNA technology.

So when Caruthers came to Lefkoff with the idea to start companies based on work going on in the department’s labs, “We believed he was…