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When you’re launching a new business in an industry as complex as pharmaceuticals, advice based on experience can be valuable.
“They help you avoid common mistakes that don’t seem obvious, but they’ve experienced them and have avoided them,” said Matt Stahl, CEO and founder of North Liberty-based Steel Therapeutics.
Stahl connected with those advisers through the new Venture Mentor Service, or VMS, at the University of Iowa’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.
The program, which teams experienced management mentors with entrepreneurs, is free and available through all five Iowa Pappajohn centers — the others are at Iowa State University, Drake University, University of Northern Iowa and Northern Iowa Area Community College.
“We have all these experts willing to help,” said Jeralyn Westercamp, economic development manager for the University of Iowa’s Pappajohn center, where she oversees VMS.
“We have a lot of alumni who are really eager to give back. JPECs in Iowa have been doing fabulous work for years. We were looking at, how could we help support this ecosystem?”
The answer comes in the VMS model developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which launched its program in 2000.
The teams of three to five mentors, each with at least seven years’ experience, are customized to the needs of each business.
“It’s not a matching process,” Westercamp said. “It’s very holistic.”
“It’s a strong set of mentors with different industries and functional backgrounds and entrepreneurial experience,” said Julie Zielinski, a mentor for VMS’ pilot program last fall.
“The management of the system is such that it makes it very easy for both entrepreneurs and the mentors to set up most efficiently.”
Zielinski, who’s also vice president at the Entrepreneurial Development Center in Cedar Rapids, said VMS is a natural compliment to its own efforts.
“We’ve partnered with the University of Iowa many years,” she said.
“We are very familiar with JPEC and collaborate there and consider them a partner. I think it was a natural.”
While any business may work with any of the Pappajohn centers, Westercamp said most owners make the choice based on their alumni status, location and the expertise of each institution.
Team meetings are conducted over the Zoom online platform.
“Each center has an industry focus,” Westercamp said. “It’s up to the entrepreneur to decide who they want to work with.”
“That’s one of the cool things this program did,” Stahl said. “Jeralyn was able to pair me up with the pharmaceutical and device industry.
“These are some of the most successful people in the industry. The personalized aspect of this is really a huge benefit.”
Stahl and his business partners started Steel Therapeutics in 2019 to develop compounded drug therapies.
Compounded drugs, created by combining ingredients to make a medication tailored to the needs of an individual patient, aren’t approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and so aren’t usually covered by insurance.
Stahl’s focus is to get compounded drugs through the FDA’s approval process, opening potential markets worth billions of dollars.
Stahl first encountered compounded drugs in the UI’s pharmacy program and later worked for companies bringing new drugs to market.
“I noticed clinical and regulatory requirements that required FDA approval,” he said. “I thought I could do this if I could put together a management team.
“We want to be able to have a regulatory pathway through the FDA approval process at half the time and half the cost.”
Stahl also credits the Iowa Startup Accelerator in Cedar Rapids for helping Steel Therapeutics’ early development before beginning working with VMS mentors early this year.
“They were able to help me with my product development and practice,” Stahl said of the Accelerator.
“But the biggest thing was, I was introduced to the leaders in the field that are alumni of the university and who have had their own incredible successes, and bring that back to Iowa, back to alumni, back to the student.”
“We work with every level of business, whether it’s an idea or ready to launch or earning revenue,” Westercamp said. “Steel’s doing great things, and he was a good example for (the University of) Iowa.”
VMS clients approve the teams suggested by staff at each JPEC, who locate mentors with the appropriate industry or need.
“What support are you looking for to get to the technical skills?” is the key question, Westercamp said.
“Maybe someone’s 100 percent fabulous with marketing, but they work in ag and this is the health tech industry. If someone needs to a write a business plan, let’s connect them with someone who lectures about that.”
Westercamp handles all paperwork for program participants.
“The way MIT built the program, the academic connection, our role is coordinating support,” she said. “We don’t want any of that paperwork piece to be a burden.”
Steel Therapeutics’ first product, a medicated single-use wipe for patients with anal fissures, isn’t expected to reach the market until 2027. Stahl is early discussions with the FDA on a clinical testing plan.
“We have recurring with the mentors they’ve connected me with,” he said. “It’s not once and the program is done. It’s a cool ripple effect that it started for me.”
“It’s just very powerful to see that relationship being built and seeing these clients be able to come back to the table with this trusted team of advisers,” Westercamp said.
And maybe Stahl himself will be on such a team one day.
“I would love that,” he said. “I hope that’s what this program turns into.
“It’s a self-seeding program that helps facilitate the growth of people.”
For more information, go to iowajpec.org/community-programs-and-resources/venture-mentoring-service.