As a serial entrepreneur, Bob Curtis has started 10 companies. He’s succeeded and failed and succeeded. “You learn more from the failures than successes,” he says.
What he has not succeeding in doing, though, is retiring.
He’s at the age when he should be retired, but he wears the mantle of “serial failed retiree” proudly. “I’ve failed at retirement three times.”
With a stellar track record in medical technology and bioscience startups, Curtis relocated from Silicon Valley to Santa Fe in 2005 to retire. But soon he was on the board of Respira Therapeutics, advising the startup as the company sought to bring its dry powder asthma inhaler to market. Next thing you know, he was CEO.
It was not so much that anyone talked Curtis out of retirement, says Brian Birk, managing partner of the private equity firm Sun Mountain Capital. “I think we just had to show Bob where the candy store was and step back out of the way.”
It’s not unusual for entrepreneurs to get back in the game, says David Blivin, managing partner of Cottonwood Technology Fund, which along with Sun Mountain invested in Respira. “It’s kind of an addictive pursuit,” says Blivin.
That’s “the why” of it, but New Mexico investors and business incubators say “the what” of it is a boon for their entrepreneurial ecosystem. They say it’s more common to see later-in-life entrepreneurs on the scene, whether they are serial entrepreneurs like Curtis; encore entrepreneurs on a second wind in life; or corporate careerists who take the leap off the cliff because they want to run their own company.
The advantages that senior entrepreneurs bring are particularly suited to inject vitality into the emerging ecosystems in the Silicon66 corridor, whether that’s Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico or Arizona, they say. That’s because experience = sustainable companies.
Building a Company
Innovation technology thrives in New Mexico, Birk says, but the challenge is molding that into a market solution. Curtis had done that successfully in Silicon Valley as an early CEO of Aerogen, an early-stage metered dose inhaler company, and as co-founder of two San Francisco Bay Area medical tech companies.
The Silicon 66 region doesn’t have the density of markets like Silicon Valley, Boulder, Austin, New York and Boston, where there are plenty of Fortune 500 executives with thick Rolodexes and plenty of industry-based expertise that can bring a drug or product “from lab bench to market,” as Birk says. “We are a remote state. You have to really be intentional to come here.”
When young entrepreneurs can easily tap into a pool of well-seasoned entrepreneurs, they can navigate the challenges better. “When you have to build a real product, deliver it to real customers that are big Fortune 500 customers, you can’t do that typically as a young person,” Blivin adds. “The question is not: Can you build a product? It’s: Can you build a company and sell the product?”
That’s where Curtis came in. As Respira built technology that co-inventor Hugh Smyth developed while on the pharmacy faculty at the University of New Mexico, Blivin was “kind of acting like CEO,” Curtis notes. “For investors to be the CEO is not a good idea.”
So as CEO starting in 2012, Curtis brought in consultants to navigate the path to market, which in the biosciences realm includes the challenges of gathering clinical data, getting patents and developing manufacturing technology. The lab had moved to Austin in 2009 after Smyth took a position in Texas. Martin Donovan, who had co-invented the first technology Respira pursued while he was a graduate student at UNM working with Smyth, then developed the current technology after joining Respira full-time. But then Curtis presented the startup to Birk in 2013, and Santa Fe-based Sun Mountain invested. Combined with the investment from Cottonwood, that funding allowed Respira to return to Albuquerque in 2013 and set up in The BioScience Center.
“Seven of the companies I helped found or took over have gotten exits for investors,” Curtis says. Since coming to New Mexico, he’s also co-founded Avasca Medical, which developed technology for a novel approach to closing holes in blood vessels. Avasca got up and running, raised seed capital but didn’t attract the investment from out of state that it needed to move to the clinical trial phase. “It costs $2.5 million or so to do that. That’s a big frustration,” Curtis says.
They were able to sell the intellectual property to a large company that continues to pursue the path to market, he says. “The investors didn’t make money on it, so I wouldn’t call it a success.”
Knowing the stakes and navigating the obstacles are among the supreme advantages of senior entrepreneurs, says Marie Longserre, president and CEO of the Santa Fe Business Incubator. “They have deeper knowledge and experience. They have broader networks,” she says. “They have been through the ups and downs of life. They can weather the uncertainties.”
Near-death experience is more like it, Curtis says. His most instructive moment as an entrepreneur was when he was starting up a company in the Bay Area that had developed new technology for making facial muscles not work – “a non-drug approach to doing what Botox does,” he says.
After a year, it wasn’t working. “We figured it out, but differently,” he says. “The market was not receptive.”
Those were dark days. But they found the same technology could be used to treat nerves that transmit pain from the knee to the brain, and they turned it into a pain therapy company. “It’s close to FDA approval now,” he says.
That meant selling the venture capitalists on the pivot. Curtis had to go before them and say, “Oh, guess what, the thing you invested in isn’t going to work.”
But Curtis provided them another opportunity. “They remember the pivot and don’t remember it didn’t work.”
That’s where experience comes in. “Part of being in an early stage company is not giving up when something bad happens,” he says. “I’ve had the near-death experience on a frequent basis.”
Taking the Long View
Later-in-life entrepreneurs have “tremendous perseverance,” says Longserre. They can make the tough decisions – when to keep on going, when to pull the plug.
“On a pretty steady level, the group of 45-, 50- and 60-year-olds have typically been the ones creating longer-term, sustainable businesses,” she says.
That’s particularly true with life science companies, which have a longer incubation period and a much thornier regulatory maze, says Birk. “You really need gray hair.”
Young entrepreneurs have an advantage over older entrepreneurs – they don’t sleep. But Birk says that’s more necessary for software developers, which have been the dominant recipients of venture capital.
“Inevitably the cycle in venture capital will move away from software and move back to science-based discovery,” he says. “That’s what started the industry.”
And that’s where later-in-life entrepreneurs will be vital, he says. The pendulum shift plays to the strength of the Silicon66 region with the laboratories, universities and particularly the biosciences in New Mexico and Arizona.
Curtis defines his unique advantage as a serial entrepreneur as being exactly that – serial. He’s not planning to be president for life, as many founders do. His expertise is bringing operational excellence to company that’s trying to establish what it is. “I like creating order out of chaos as a professional CEO with a lot of experience,” he says. “I can help entrepreneurs with great ideas.”
That may not be flashy, but it’s vital to cultivating the entrepreneurial ecosystem in New Mexico, because that’s what develops streams of capital, says Blivin. “If someone finds an idea in New Mexico, but they’re in California, they might stay in California to start the company.” But if they find a CEO here … “you’d like that idea to stay in New Mexico.”
Which is why Blivin’s Cottonwood Tech fund prioritizes cultivating a leadership class. He made that work in North Carolina, and now he’s building it in New Mexico and the Netherlands. “Capital all by itself doesn’t create value,” he says. “The idea all by itself doesn’t create value.”
The same holds true for Sun Mountain Capital, where Birk says one company’s success spawns another and another. “We have brought some credibility to this geography.”