Neil Patel

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In the world of scientific innovation and entrepreneurship, few names shine as brightly as David Schaffer’s. With a track record of launching and nurturing successful companies in the biomedical field, David’s journey is not just a story of academic achievement.

It is also a testament to the power of translating groundbreaking research into tangible solutions for humanity’s most pressing challenges. In an exclusive interview, we delve into the remarkable journey of David Schaffer, from his humble beginnings to his pivotal role in shaping the future of biotechnology.

David talks about building eight companies within a short time frame of just over a decade, one of which he took public. The company is now trading at around $1.2B+ at market cap. David also reveals details about the ongoing clinical trials in one of his companies, acquisitions, and incubating startups.

Listen to the full podcast episode and review the transcript here.

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Growing Up in an Academically Inclined Household

David grew up in a household where his father was an academic and a basic biologist/professor, though not application-oriented. His mother had a thriving career in drug development and was sort of on the opposite end of the spectrum.

She was an MD and a physician working in pharmaceutical companies like Novartis and Sanofi, running everything from Phase I to Phase IV and clinical trials.

As David explains, “I wanted to be somewhere in between. I wanted to be more applied than my father, yet retain the academic freedom to pursue my interests.”

David went to high school and college at Stanford University, which is Berkeley’s rival, a fact that he points to wryly. After Stanford, David went to MIT for graduate school and then to Salk Institute for a postdoctorate.

Sometime in 1999, he came to UC Berkeley and started his academic career, where he has been for the last 25 years.

The Intersection of Science and Innovation

Drawn to the intersection of science and innovation, David’s decision to take up engineering was motivated by his parents. He decided to pursue that route, eventually becoming a serial entrepreneur, maintaining the balance between academics and business.

As David explains, many people focus on research programs, building within their labs, just as he has throughout his career. Then, they move on to teaching or become a chair, dean, provost, or chancellor.

David was more keen on translating his technologies from his academic labs into industry at different times of his career.

For the first half of his career, he was really focused on building up his academic programs. He also researched and worked on solving what he found to be some interesting problems.

In the second half of his career, David has been focused on taking the results of that work, translating it from the public sector into the private sector, and getting it into companies that can then advance it to human clinical development.

His objective is to convert them into products that can be scaled up to help society.

The Birth of a Vision: Incubating Success

As David’s research flourished, so did his entrepreneurial spirit. Recognizing the transformative potential of his discoveries, David embarked on a mission to bring them out of the lab and into the marketplace.

This led to the establishment of an incubator program to nurture scientific innovation and entrepreneurship.

David had always known he wanted to play a role in forming companies and started doing that around 11 years ago.

“At the heart of academia lies education and research,” he emphasizes. “But there’s also a unique opportunity to translate these discoveries into tangible solutions that can benefit society.”

With the launch of Bakar Labs in 2006, in partnership between QB3-Berkeley and a generous donor foundation, David created a thriving ecosystem for scientific startups.

Bakar Labs stands as a beacon of innovation in the biotech landscape, boasting 31 companies collectively raising over $390 million and creating 350 jobs.

It was the first incubator in the University Of California system and, in 2008, formed the very first University Affiliated Venture Capital Fund anywhere in the country. This organization has a longstanding history of being innovative in the interface between academia and companies.

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Building Companies Out of Research Labs

David underscores that his objective has always been to identify significant problems and leverage engineering and technology to find solutions for them. He dived into gene and cell therapy and began publishing on and patenting them.

At some point, the solution to the problem reached a critical mass where it could be the basis of a company. David’s intention was never to start spinning companies out of his lab.

He would simply put a compelling technological solution to a crucial biomedical problem, which would become a great package for starting a company.

David would onboard graduate students or post-doctorates who were involved in creating the technology. He had implicit trust and confidence in their talent and skills and that they would move mountains to to make the technology work.

Next, David would pair them with experienced leadership and mentors who would enable them to grow.

Launching companies has David investing a lot of time into them, but with some, he has stayed on as a consultant and board member. He stays involved with them and enjoys watching them grow.

The Road to Success: Navigating the Entrepreneurial Terrain

David talks about his research with gene therapy, where you can use DNA as a medicine by delivering the correct versions of faulty genes to cure diseases. He also explains how adeno-associated viruses and bacteria can be used to deliver medicinal DNA by taking away their ability to replicate.

David has also been working extensively on engineered adenoviruses that can be much more efficient targeted versions.

Essentially, they have invented a technology that enabled them to reprogram these viruses and make them much better at carrying that DNA to a variety of cells and tissues throughout the body. David’s companies are at the forefront of biomedical advancement.

“The key is to identify big problems and develop technological solutions to address them,” David explains. “From there, it’s about assembling the right team, securing financing, and navigating the complex landscape of scientific entrepreneurship.”

Pioneering Breakthroughs: Transforming Science into Solutions – 4D Molecular

Around 2012-2013, the capital market started recovering, and people were looking for things to invest in. Biotech became a big one, and there were three major areas where investors started coming into biotech: cancer immunotherapy.

As David recalls, genome editing and gene therapy suddenly came to the fore, and there was a huge amount of interest in it. People approached him since he had been publishing for 10 years about new technology to engineer and optimize viruses for delivery.

Investors and large companies that were trying to launch their own gene therapy programs and needed delivery vehicles were interested in partnering with David. That’s when he co-founded 4D Molecular Therapeutics along with Melissa Cotterman.

They decided to finance the company not through the traditional VC route initially but through business development partnerships because the companies were asking for access to novel viruses.

David entered into deals and used the capital to grow the company, and even had an acquisition offer. However, since gene therapies were still new to the industry, he wasn’t confident they could achieve synergies.

In December 2020, David decided to take the company public, staying on as CEO and chairman of the board. He remembers having 75 investor meetings over the course of a couple of months, and it ended up being a pretty successful IPO. The company is now trading at a $1.2B+ market cap.

Building Rewrite Therapeutics and Ignite Immunotherapies

David talks about the founding of Rewrite Therapeutics and the journey through liquidation via an M&A deal. And the tough choice between staying private and growing the company versus an acquisition.

Rewrite is a genome editing company, the brainchild of a brilliant graduate student, Shakked Halperin. He published a paper with David that went on to become the basis of Rewrite, which was spun out of Berkeley.

While in a discussion about a partnership, the deal morphed into an M&A deal with Intellia, a larger public genome editing company.

Ignite Immunotherapy is yet another company David founded that was acquired by Pfizer for $45M upfront and $155M in milestones.

Pfizer made an initial investment in Ignite with the possibility of an eventual acquisition, though they did have the option to keep the company independent and continue to grow.

Ignite was a cancer therapy company. Cancer therapeutics is a time and capital-intensive project requiring lots of clinical expertise to advance into the clinic and ultimately to get regulatory approval.

This is why having a partner with tons of expertise and deep pockets like Pfizer was really an asset to Ignite Immunotherapies.

Storytelling is everything, which is something that David Schaffer was able to master. Being able to capture the essence of what you are doing in 15 to 20 slides is the key. For a winning deck, take a look at the pitch deck template created by Silicon Valley legend Peter Thiel (see it here), where the most critical slides are highlighted.

Remember to unlock the pitch deck template that is being used by founders around the world to raise millions below.

The Pioneering Journey Forward

David currently has five companies, the youngest of which is a pre-seed company and the most senior of which is a series B company led by Morningside. Yet another company they are raising funding for is a stem cell company.

As David outlines, the majority of the companies he has worked on have been gene delivery companies, and this is a stem cell therapy company.

The premise is to deliver stem cells to help rebuild and repopulate tissue. He is building a company and team around this technology while pursuing equity financing and potential BD relationships to enable the company to grow further.

The company, Axent Biosciences, has raised $100K in funding from SkyDeck Berkeley.

Lessons Learned and Future Horizons

Reflecting on his journey, David offers sage advice to aspiring entrepreneurs. “Never underestimate the power of networking and learning from others,” he advises. “Surround yourself with people who challenge and inspire you, and never stop pursuing your passion for innovation.”

One thing remains certain in the ever-evolving landscape of biotechnology: the future is bright, fueled by the ingenuity and vision of trailblazers like David Schaffer.

Listen to the full podcast episode to know more, including:

  • David Schaffer’s journey underscores the seamless transition from academia to entrepreneurship, blending research rigor with real-world impact.
  • Through initiatives like Bakar Labs, David has cultivated a fertile ground for scientific startups, fostering collaboration and driving tangible solutions in biotechnology.
  • David’s portfolio of eight companies reflects a commitment to diverse applications of biomedical research, from gene therapy pioneers to groundbreaking genome editing ventures.
  • The choice between staying private or pursuing acquisition hinges on each company’s unique trajectory and strategic partnerships, showcasing David’s keen understanding of the entrepreneurial landscape.
  • David’s companies are at the forefront of biomedical advancement, pioneering breakthroughs in targeted gene delivery, regenerative therapies, and beyond.
  • Networking and learning from others are paramount, as David advises aspiring entrepreneurs to surround themselves with those who challenge and inspire, fueling a relentless pursuit of innovation.
  • With a legacy rooted in excellence and a vision for a better tomorrow, David’s impact on the world of scientific innovation is profound, shaping the future of biotechnology for generations to come.



For a winning deck, see the commentary on a pitch deck from an Uber competitor that has raised over $400M (see it here). 

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Remember to unlock for free the pitch deck template that is being used by founders around the world to raise millions below.


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Neil Patel

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