Programs: NSF I-Corps, Idea to Plan, CoMotion Innovation Gap Fund, CoMotion DubPitchLinkedIn
- Life Science
Areas of expertise
- Marketing–early stage
- Market analysis
- Project Management
- Technical–diagnostic /therapeutic/life science
- Technical–software design and architecture
- New business development
- SBIR grant
Todd M. Smith, Ph.D. is a successful entrepreneur. He received his B.S. degrees in Genetics and Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota, and a Ph.D. in Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Washington. After receiving his Ph.D., he developed bioinformatics software in Leroy Hood’s laboratory as his team sequenced the BRCA1 gene in collaboration with Mary Claire-King. In 1997, he co-founded the bioinformatics software company Geospiza and led the commercial development of laboratory information management systems (LIMS) and high throughput data analysis systems for all forms of DNA sequencing and microarray technologies. The company’s free Sanger electropherogram trace viewer, FinchTV, became a standard tool that is still widely used.
PerkinElmer acquired Geospiza in 2011, and in 2013 Dr. Smith joined Digital World Biology (DWB) to lead business development, provide business consulting, and support software and web development projects. Through Digital World Biology, Dr. Smith shares his industry expertise in a national network of community colleges that provide workforce education in biotechnology (InnvATEBIO.org). In other work, Dr. Smith manages Biotech-Careers.org, a highly visited website that links industry with educators, students, and job seekers, and develops resources for teaching modern immunology concepts such as immuno-bioinformatics and antibody engineering.
As a CoMotion entrepreneur mentor, Dr. Smith participates in startup workshops and helps emerging biotechnology businesses perform market assessments for technologies in genomics, synthetic biology, structural biology, and bioinformatics. Dr. Smith currently serves on advisory boards at Phase Genomics and Wayfinder Biosciences and was a science advisor for Stratos Genomics (acquired by Roche in 2020).
Working with CoMotion
I began working with CoMotion in 2014 with projects that focused on market analysis and SBIR grant proposals for two UW databases. Since then, I’ve participated in many (one/two per year) “Idea to Plan” workshops, mentored six CoMotion Innovation Gap Fund teams and one I-Corps team, and participated in CoMotion DubPitch events. I’ve helped several groups develop market analysis plans and helped with other kinds of business development. I initially got involved with CoMotion to get back out in the wild so to speak. I had invested heavily in developing a bioinformatics company and network, and I wanted share that experience and also explore other dimensions of the biotech industry. CoMotion is a great venue for both. The most rewarding experience for me is when mentees get those “ah ha” moments. From those, they get some success, learn, and build from there. I love it with they try new things. They also teach me a lot in the process–there are numerous opportunities to share and learn. Whether we recognize it or not, everyone benefits from mentors. Formerly recognizing this fact and becoming a mentor is a way to pay it forward, and I really enjoy the process.
Sharing one project is hard – I’ve had two projects have led to advisory roles: Phase Genomics and Wayfinder Biosciences. Both are great in that the founders are serious about developing successful companies. By that, they’ve made the company their full-time work. Phase Genomics is further along (5+ years). In addition to continually advancing the science around their products, I love their marketing approach. They have fun. From the DNA socks to Ivan Liachko’s (CEO) “smoking jacket” for virtual Genome Startup Day events, they remind me of the early days of Geospiza and our Finch T-Shirts. Each year, we had a line at our conference booth to get the new T-Shirt. When you combine fun with a commitment to helping your customers succeed, as Phase Genomics does, you build a well-loved brand. Phase Genomics has also been very successful in wining SBIR’s, and I like to think the market analyses I’ve helped with have contributed.
Phase Genomics and Wayfinder are two favorites that have spun out, but another favorite was the I-Corps team that I helped last fall. What made that great was how the team learned and pivoted from building a product that would save science through standardized analysis chemicals, to providing a service that would enable scientists to use those chemicals. In other words, their market wanted the analyses done, but was not yet prepared to do them independently. As we know, I-Corps is rigorous in terms of the number of interviews that must get done in a short period of time. The team was behind, with lots of ghosting, but they dug in and got the interviews and learned. And, won $2500 to learn more! As to what clicks in a relationship, for one, the team and I must work well together. Part of this is sharing the same values. A sense of humor is a plus. Next, founders need to think about how to address business challenges and be curious about the ways in which humans think and make decisions.
Advice to innovators
The single piece of advice, as a question, would be, are you willing to quit your day job to work on your ideas full time? Jumping into an ocean of uncertainty focuses the mind in powerful ways. Some folks want to get someone else to do this, others want to get to a quick investment. In all cases, future business partners, CEOs, or investors want to see evidence that you can execute on some business before they jump in. Until then, they’ll give advice.
On the lighter side
Phase Genomics at a genomics meeting in Santa Fe New Mexico (SFAF). Before COVID-19, when we went to conferences, Phase Genomics would take serious scientists to Meow Wolf, an immersive art experience with a mysterious narrative. Meow Wolf wasn’t just fun to participate in, it was also fun to observe computer and genomic scientists geek out in immersive art. Phase Genomics goes to SFAF for their business, and Digital World Biology goes for its business, so we do not go together, but we do bump into each other, at the airport, at things in town, and at hikes in the area.