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From Startups to Investing and Back Again

Monday, February 12, 2018 • Elizabeth Good Mazhari

Elizabeth Good Mazhari started her career in startups and ventured back to her roots, now as a consultant and UM Baltimore EIR.

Startups usually aren’t an easy work environment for even the heartiest of souls and there are more incidences of failure than success. For Elizabeth Good Mazhari, entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR) with UM Ventures at UM Baltimore, working in and with startups has been an ongoing adventure with few if any downsides, as she tells it. Beginning her career at startups, in fact, provided some unforeseen benefits in her academic and professional journey.

Ms. Mazhari was in the midst of earning a M.S. in Bioengineering at UC San Diego when her professor suggested that she look into a part-time job with a local medical device startup developing a system for monitoring anti-coagulant therapeutics. She got the job and, later, her boss asked if she wanted to complete her Master’s thesis there instead of at the University. “That was pretty unique back then,” she says.

Ms. Mazhari followed the founders of this initial company to another startup in the same space, Accumetrics, where she worked for four years in various development and operational capacities. Her husband accepted a post-doc position at Johns Hopkins in 2000, necessitating a move to Baltimore. Ms. Mazhari soon discovered, however, that there was a dearth of suitable opportunities in life sciences in the city at the time. Fortuitously, another path appeared. She accepted a position with the Maryland Venture Fund, a career move that might not have been possible without those rough-and-tumble years in small, high-risk companies. “Even without a traditional business background, my startup experience helped me get in the door,” she says. She quickly rose to become the managing director of the Fund.

Her experience in the Maryland Venture Fund role was game-changing, she says: the equivalent of getting an MBA. “I read hundreds of business plans every year and sat in many boardrooms,” Ms. Mazhari recalls. “I got to know every single early-stage life science company in the state.” She also learned about the volatile world of financing during the time of her employment with the State of Maryland from 2000 to 2006. “By the end of those six years, less than half of the early-stage venture funds in Maryland were still in business and most angels had fled from life science companies due to the ever-increasing funding needs.” 

Back to her roots: shaping ideas into reality

Certainly, working on the financing side of startups was invaluable: something that business schools can’t teach. Yet during her time with the State, Ms. Mazhari missed the excitement of being close to the product and to the market strategy. “I realized that what I enjoyed most was working with the scientists and the entrepreneurs, helping them move from an idea to a fundable company.” She worked in startup development roles at UM Baltimore and Johns Hopkins before founding her own consulting firm advising academic researchers and startups in 2015. She spends much of her time teaching I-Corps, a curriculum developed by the National Science Foundation which provides real-world, hands-on immersive learning about how to successfully transfer an academic invention into a commercially relevant product.  As a nationally certified instructor, she’s had the opportunity to work with academic teams and startups from all over the country, as well as internationally.

Her acuity for the practical side of innovation is what untested entrepreneurs often lack. “Many times investigators have fallen in love with the research,” she says. “They spend a lot of time on ideas but not on how to bring a product to market. They need to understand how to solve a problem and how their idea can improve the standard of care.” Inventors also may lack in-depth knowledge about operating costs, marketing requirements, the FDA approval process, and long-term strategy. There’s also the skill of communications, which a PhD may not have much experience doing outside the walls of academia. “Faculty inventors often understand the business value but they must know how to articulate that effectively in business terms to convince others,” Ms. Mazhari says.

UMV focus

She began working with UM Ventures in 2015 as a site miner for the MII program, which expanded into her current role as a reviewer for the Maryland Momentum Fund. She commits about 20 hours per month to UMV, alongside her busy consulting work and being a mother to active 10-year-old twin girls. Ms. Mazhari loves seeing the successful fruition of projects dating back to when she was the director of strategic investments at UM Baltimore, such as Harpoon Medical. “I recently had the opportunity of working again with Dr. Jim Gammie, a cardiac surgeon and inventor of Harpoon Medical’s lead product, to help him obtain a MII grant for his next big idea,” she says.

She’s not afraid to tell faculty inventors whom cross her path that doing a startup will take “twice as long and twice the money” as they may think at the outset. Successful founders also need more than book smarts and novel scientific thinking. Top traits, in her view, include the willingness to listen and take advice from others and to make changes in the product, business plan or strategy based upon this counsel. Finally, she advises: don’t go it alone. “It’s important to recognize that you can’t do this all by yourself,” Ms. Mazhari says. “You need someone with connections and business experience to help you out.”