<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=799546403794687&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Image of Gali Baler, PhD, left, and V. Michael Holers, MD, right.

How to become a successful innovator, entrepreneur

CU experts offer tips and resources for researchers who aspire to create their own technologies to help patients.

minute read

Written by Tayler Shaw on June 13, 2024

Becoming a successful innovator and entrepreneur can be a daunting and difficult process, which is why the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus has developed extensive resources to help its researchers find success in developing novel ways to help others.

With hopes of inspiring faculty and offering tangible advice, the CU Department of Medicine highlighted these resources during its latest Research Achievement Highlights (REACH) forum through presentations by two experts: V. Michael Holers, MD, and Gali Baler, PhD.    

Holers, an endowed chair and professor in the Division of Rheumatology, shared his experience co-founding multiple companies to help patients with immune diseases.

“You can have a very successful academic career, and you can also — in that context — found companies and work with companies,” Holers said.

Baler, the managing director of strategy and operations for CU Innovations and the director of investments for the CU Healthcare Innovation Fund, explained there are many different paths researchers can pursue to combine their passions and help patients.

“I think there is a strong connection between academia and industry in terms of how we think about translating ideas,” Baler said.

Finding success as a researcher and entrepreneur

Prior to embarking on his entrepreneurial career, Holers had more than 15 years of experience in academic research. Much of his research focused on understanding the role the body’s complement system — an innate immune system — has in autoimmune diseases, specifically looking at therapeutic interventions to help patients.

“You cannot start a company unless you actually know the science with such amazing depth, because other companies and venture groups have hired some of the smartest PhD scientists in the world who come in and try to pick apart your idea,” he said. “You really need to become a passionate expert and be able to understand exactly what you’re doing.”

In 1996, the first company Holers co-founded was Touch of Life Technologies, also called ToLTech, with the goal of working with other CU faculty to create educational products and solutions that positively impacted the ability of trainees and health care providers to help patients.

Less than a decade later, in 2003, he co-founded Taligen Therapeutics, which focused on therapies for inflammatory diseases like asthma. Unfortunately, the company experienced manufacturing issues and by 2007, the company was about $1 million in debt.

“This pathway is not always associated with initial success,” Holers said, emphasizing the value of resilience.

Determined, Holers and his colleagues decided to change their focus from asthma to “orphan diseases,” referring to rarer conditions that have traditionally been neglected in medicine. They began fundraising again and by early 2008, they raised $65 million. By 2011, Taligen was acquired for $115 million.

In 2015, Holers co-founded along with Joshua Thurman, MD, another CU faculty member and nephrologist, the next company, Q32 Bio, that develops therapeutics for inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. To help the company find success, he worked with CU Innovations, which he described as a valuable resource for helping researchers actualize their ideas.

“It’s incredibly important to work with CU Innovations to protect your intellectual property, develop fundraising strategies, and decide how you want to get your ideas to patients,” said Holers, who in addition to continuing his research activities also serves as director of faculty ventures for CU Innovations.

Collaborating with CU Innovations

Baler is one of several experts at CU Innovations who aid researchers in determining how to best turn their ideas into actual technologies that can help patients. 

“We are translating intellectual property — patents, copyrights, trademarks, studies, datasets, and your know-how expertise,” Baler said. “We know those are tremendous resources that can have a lot of value in the marketplace, and we’re translating those to industry, pharmaceutical, software companies, and venture capitalists to try to obtain financing to move those projects forward.”

There are a number of different commercialization funding mechanisms available to facilitate this process, including accelerator programs like the SPARK|REACH Program, which provides about $1 million in grant funding annually to teams across campus. Other programs include the Gates Grubstake Fund, the digiSPARK funding program, the Chancellor’s Discovery and Innovation Fund, and the Startup Toolbox

“I’ve talked about creating companies, but that’s not the only thing we support. There are many different journeys and avenues to try to get your technologies to the marketplace and ultimately impact patients,” Baler said. “For example, you can license the technology directly to outside entities. Potentially, you can also go directly to the market depending on the technology sector.”

Beyond choosing their own journey, innovators can also decide on different levels of industry involvement, ranging from serving as a technical consultant, a business developer, a fundraiser, or even an expert in the innovation ecosystem.

“It’s important to consider what kind of roles you want to take, how intensely you want to be committed, and how much control you want to have in the final product,” Baler said.

Innovators should also consider their risk appetite, he added, given that the success rate is fairly low for many technologies coming out of universities.

“The risks are real, but it’s important to keep trying because, ultimately, we’re trying to do better by patients,” Baler said.

Featured Experts
Staff Mention

V. Michael Holers, MD

Staff Mention

Gali Baler, PhD