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A Ph.D.’s Journey from the Lab to Corporate Finance to CEO

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Dr. Alastair Mackay has followed his passion for scientific discovery in many different ways, but always with a focus on medical advancements.

Alastair Mackay, Ph.D., UM Baltimore site miner and consultant, has worn many hats over his career: as a research scientist at an early-stage therapeutics company, an equity analyst, a VC fund principal, and – most recently – an advisor to startups and the CEO of a medical-device venture. Yet, he says, it’s a long-ago experience as a Johns Hopkins research fellow that stands out. He had spent months, to no avail, using cloning and gene-splicing techniques to construct DNA and protein tools in an effort to learn the functions of a seemingly-important, but mysterious, component of human chromosomes.

“I had finished preparing the latest batch of slides at 2:00 a.m., and started reviewing them,” he recalls.  “In a darkened room, with my first glance in the microscope’s eyepiece, it was immediately clear that this project had worked out better than we could have dreamed. I will always remember that instant, my own little eureka moment, when I realized that we had made a major discovery about how chromosomes move during cell division by binding to microtubules.”

This line of research ultimately combined with several others to identify aurora kinases as attractive targets for new cancer therapies. Drug candidates based on this approach have advanced to Phase 2 clinical trials, but, disappointingly, none have yet been validated in Phase 3. “The path to a successful kinase inhibitor is long and hard, so you’ve got to take your lumps with the wins,” says Dr. Mackay, who earned his Ph.D. in cell biology at the University of Vermont.

That early experience of scientific discovery has continued to motivate Dr. Mackay over his career: one that’s indicative of a person who takes chances and enjoys learning new skills. After spending several years in basic stem cell research, product development and grants administration at Osiris Therapeutics (a leader in researching, developing and marketing cellular regenerative medicine products), he was recruited by GARP Research & Securities to work as a Wall Street equities analyst. The firm’s clients – portfolio managers at mutual funds, pensions, and hedge funds – provided Dr. Mackay with insights into the world of big money.

“This was a very different adventure, to see how institutional investors view the world,” he reflects. “Our clients were smart, diligent people with very high expectations of analysts and their reviews/analyses. I learned a lot about how to evaluate companies – and how key criteria vary by sector.”

This financial acumen served Dr. Mackay well when he joined the Maryland Venture Fund, a public-sector VC fund that oversees $100 million in assets.  As life sciences principal, he vetted hundreds of startups and private companies seeking seed and Series A equity. The first connection to UM Ventures was forged through his championing of Harpoon Medical Inc., a UM-Baltimore medical-devices startup. Harpoon’s lead device is designed to facilitate minimally-invasive mitral valve repair to transform the treatment of mitral valve regurgitation.

“When UMB Professor of Cardiac Surgery and Director of the University’s Center for Heart Valve Disease Dr. Jim Gammie came with his team to pitch the MVF, I felt we had a winner,” recounts Dr. Mackay.  That confidence was amply justified in December, when Edwards Lifesciences acquired Harpoon for up to $250 million, including $100 million in cash.

In addition to running his own consulting business, Dr. Mackay serves as a UMB Site Miner for TEDCO’s Maryland Innovation Initiative (MII). In this role, he works with the Office of Technology Transfer to help faculty evaluate the commercial potential of their inventions. For the most promising ones, he advises entrepreneurial professors on distilling proof-of-concept experiments so that they fit into the strict time-and-money constraints of Maryland’s commercialization grant programs.

In two years, he has helped secure funding for 11 MII projects, and another supported by the Maryland Stem Cell Research Foundation (MSCRF). Dr. Mackay is especially proud of the work that he’s done for lung cancer testing and therapy: “UMB faculty have developed multiple promising leads for lung cancer, as well as novel treatment ideas. If therapy can be started when tumors are small, survival can be measured in years, instead of months.”

Dr. Mackay has used his experiences working with venture capitalists to convey that industry’s principles to prospective biotech startup founders. VCs have to be convinced that a startup can offer big returns to balance out all the inevitable failures.  “Each prospective investor comes to a pitch with particular set of requirements,” he says.  “I urge inventors to try walking a mile in their boots, and to understand the upsides and downsides of the idea from their perspective.”

Engagement in the startup community is not for the weak at heart, yet Dr. Mackay shows his delight with the opportunities he’s had, working on innovative technologies aimed at helping patients who are bypassed by the current standard of care.

“UMB’s faculty members are admirable people.  They’re aware of the gaps in practice in their fields of specialization. I love the way that the Office of Technology Transfer, UM Ventures, and the USM Momentum Fund are creating new avenues for transforming ‘aha! moments’ into commercially viable technologies.”

Recently, Dr. Mackay’s career took another turn, when he accepted the role of CEO with Kosmo Technologies, a Salt Lake City startup that has prototyped a device for quickly and cheaply measuring airway resistance.  The company is working to achieve its first regulatory approval for improving a neglected first-line treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) known as oral appliance therapy. “Specialist dentists have an alternative to Positive Airway Pressure (‘CPAP’) that is highly effective for many OSA sufferers,” Mackay explains. “However, the process of adjusting a new appliance is costly for dentists and annoying for patients. Kosmo’s technology is a solution that is both rapid and inexpensive.”

Dr. Mackay attributes each step in his career – starting at the academic lab bench, moving to industry, undertaking multiple roles in the financial world, and finally his work with the University of Maryland – as important preparation for this new and challenging role at Kosmo. “Without every one of these experiences, I could never have reached the point of saying ‘Yes’ to a crazy idea like this,” he laughs.