Steven Isaacman does not have a resume. He never had one, and he doesn’t plan to create one anytime soon. It’s not like he was born with money and never needed to work, it’s just that entrepreneurship is deep in his blood. So instead of polishing up a resume and looking for a job upon graduation with a PhD in chemistry from New York University, he set up his own shop in 2008, with an ambitious goal to help address real world problems.
Growing up on Long Island, Isaacman always knew he wanted to become an entrepreneur. His uncle, Arnie, was a successful cosmetic chemist and entrepreneur. And Isaacman wanted to be just like him. Plus, “I like to play by my own rules, and need the freedom to explore my own scientific hypotheses and ideas,” says Isaacman.
About half of startups fail within the first 5 years, according to the US Small Business Administration. But Isaacman’s PHD Biosciences (formerly Nanometics) survived, and is thriving.
It wasn’t easy in the beginning, though. To support his business, and himself, Isaacman moonlighted as an adjunct faculty and a consultant while building his business. But as luck would have it, he soon generated a stream of revenue by licensing his first invention after graduate school to Grant Industries, Inc., a private company develops and manufactures specialty chemicals. Today, the product, a photoluminescent polymer composite that converts invisible UV light to visible blue light, and thus makes the skin appear brighter and younger, remains a popular product and continues to be sold globally. As a result, PHD Biosciences has been profitable since the first year.
A winning strategy
Since then, Isaacman has successfully raised funding to support his research endeavors. But to remain control of his company, Isaacman eyes mainly non-dilutive funding. In the past 6 years, he and his team have won 13 non-dilutive awards, totaling about $7.1 million, from government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and non-profit organizations such as the Avon foundation for Woman, the New York State Center for Advanced Technology, and the American Chemical Society. The prestigious and highly competitive awards have not only provided cash flow to the young company but also validated the merits of the company’s innovations.
Isaacman attributes his winnings to “good science.” But the outstanding grant writing and presentation skills he has diligently acquired over the years have proved invaluable as well.
“I relied heavily on mentorship and networking to learn how to write SBIR and other grants,” says Isaacman. “I owe a lot of my early success to mentors like Dr. Jim Canary (Isaacman’s PhD supervisor from NYU) and Dr. Seetharama Acharya (from Einstein) who took me under their wings, and taught me about grant writing. I also took advantage of every city program available, which helped me hone my grant writing skills.”
A creative mind
Like many successful professionals, Isaacman believes a strong drive, determination, and networking are key to one’s success. He also stresses the critical role that creativity can play.
“In science, you run into so many people who are smarter than you, but not so many who are more creative,” says Isaacman.
To keep track of his creative ideas, Isaacman keeps a notebook with him at all times. One example of his creativity is figuring out new ways to solve old problems.
“All members of the core team of PHD Biosciences are PHD chemists,” explains Isaacman. “We approach biological problems as chemists – and many times, it is our ignorance to the underlying biological/biochemical mechanism that allows us to develop creative solutions to solve problems.”
A diversified portfolio
Isaacman has a long list of ideas. But he and his team currently focus on just 3 key areas: small molecule therapeutics for sickle cell disease, small molecule enzyme inhibitors as anti-cancer therapeutics, and long-wear sunscreens for skin cancer prevention.
All of the innovations in the 3 areas have won non-dilutive funding, and each has a real potential to address real world health issues.
As it’s often the case in pharmaceutical discovery, Isaacman discovered his potential solution for sickle cell disease by “accident.” And it all started with making a better self tanner for his uncle Arnie. The quest eventually led him to apply his discovery, a methodology to catalyze the Maillard reaction, to sickle cell disease. As of today, NIH has awarded Isaacman more than $3 million to develop the product.
If Isaacman’s discovery of his innovation for sickle disease was born of good fortune, the product for breast cancer was a result of a strategic collaboration.
“At PHD Biosciences, we pour through university intellectual property portfolios and try to find technologies that we can develop. This is how we found our breast cancer technology, which originated in the laboratory of Professor Vern Schramm at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine,” says Isaacman, who is also a Visiting Scholar at Einstein.
The long-wear sunscreens were, however, developed out of necessity. Having grown up around his cosmetic chemist uncle Arnie and having worked at the global cosmetic giant Estee Lauder during a college internship, Isaacman noticed that the industry was in desperate need of innovation. So he leveraged available cutting-edge academic discoveries and set out to develop long-wear sunscreens. With the products’ potential to prevent skin cancer and their foreseeable commercial success, Isaacman successfully seized NCI’s support through Phase I and Phase II SBIR awards.
While working on the NCI funded sunscreen project, Isaacman and his brother, Dr. Mike Isaacman, recognized a major shortfall of commercially available sunscreens.
“Topical sunscreen formulas are challenging to apply to the harder-to-reach areas of the back and shoulders,” notes Isaacman. To address the issue, the two brothers (known as the PHD Brothers) created the Never Miss A Spot™ wand technology, an extendable applicator allowing the consumer to self-apply the sunscreen on any area of the body.
Recognizing the potential value of the technology in sun care, skin care, as well as over-the-counter medical products, the two brothers launched a joint business venture called PHD Skin Care (phdskincare.com). With an aim to help reduce the worldwide incidence of skin cancer, the company recently launched a line of products on the television shopping network HSN with resounding success. The products are currently available only in the US, Nicaragua, and the UK. But the brothers are actively working towards commercializing their products throughout the globe. Their goal is to build the new venture into a globally sustainable brand.
A noble goal
Isaacman’s ultimate goal is to develop technologies to help treat diseases with unmet medical needs. And he is almost there. Three of PHD Bioscience’s small molecule technologies are in the final stages of preclinical development and expected to be in clinical trials in the next 12 months.
“There is a real opportunity for us to help a huge number of people through our innovations, and I would love to see that happen in the next few years,” says Isaacman.
- Learn from successful entrepreneurs
- Find a mentor who can teach you
- Learn to learn from your failure because no results are still results
- Immerse yourself into the environment where you can learn from those who have been there before
- Network and get comfortable with marketing and selling yourself and your idea
Yanni Wang is a principal scientific writer and the owner of International Biomedical Communications, a company dedicated to translating research data into clear messages. Yanni has a PhD in chemistry and writes about biomedical research-related topics for professional audiences and the general public.