Catalyst Spotlight: Jeff Arnold

February 21, 2020

This is the first of an occasional series highlighting Catalysts of the Deshpande Center.

Fifteen years ago, Jeff Arnold was running a medical device company in his fifth CEO job. Looking at a long timeline to get this company’s product through clinical trials and FDA approval, he decided he wasn’t interested in this line of work anymore, hired his replacement, and resigned. As he was trying to figure out his next step, an acquaintance recommended mentoring as a “Catalyst” at the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation.

Around the same time he started investing as an “angel investor” often, he also became actively involved as an advisor to the CEO or as board member of companies he invested in. Of the 15 companies where he had invested and became a formal advisor or board member, more than half have exited and most of the remainder are doing well. With his background, he has plenty of advice for researchers looking to start a company, and having mentors is at the top of the list. “I can’t say enough of the value of mentorship — finding people who have run companies, or who have invested in companies in your space, and asking them for help and advice is essential to success,” he said. “There are so many things to learn about starting a company, funding a company, generating a business plan that are not obvious. Some are general, but many are very specific to your particular market or industry.”

Arnold became Catalyst to a half-dozen Deshpande projects, lending his sharp insights and business perspective. “I was figuring out what my ‘2.0 career’ was going to be,” he said. “Then I started getting involved as a Catalyst, and I joined the review committee that looked at grants. Thought it was a great program, loved the people. I probably haven’t missed a year of being involved in the review committee.”

“There are so many things to learn about starting a company, funding a company, generating a business plan that are not obvious. Some are general, but many are very specific to your particular market or industry.”

Jeff Arnold

One Deshpande Center collaboration he fondly recalls spun out to become Glympse Bio, and he called Professor Sangheeta Bhatia “very smart and a total delight” to work with. When they met, the project for noninvasive detection and monitoring of disease was a platform idea, and it was unclear what application her team should pursue. The original idea was detection of cancer at a very early stage. What became clear, however, was the length of time it would take to prove the application from a clinical perspective — if you are detecting cancer before anything else can detect it, you have no choice but to wait for those cancers to be seen. And then you have to prove that very early treatment can make a difference in outcomes.

Together, they settled on Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH), a liver disease, for the initial program because there was a large unmet need and a shorter clinical path. Today, Glympse Bio’s diagnostics are designed to enable earlier, noninvasive detection and monitoring of complex diseases and conditions such as cancer, fibrosis, inflammation, and infections.

Another Deshpande project that Arnold mentored briefly was Manijeh Goldberg’s, and her team was trying to decide on the right application for a drug delivery technology. Arnold’s advice was to select a lead indication rather than present the technology as a platform. Ultimately, they decided to target oral cancer with a device for topical delivery of drugs into oral tissues, avoiding the high rate of toxicity in patients that comes with the more traditional chemotherapy. The project spun out to become Privo Technologies, and Arnold was pleased to note that the company has received many grants, and is in the clinic and doing very well.

Asked about common pitfalls for new entrepreneurs, Arnold replied, “Overconfidence.” He said new entrepreneurs often have just enough money to reach a milestone, and then things don’t go well and there is no money to fix the problem and redo the experiment. “The next test, the next experiment, the design, the clinical trial, the animal trial, they believe all those things are going to go well,” he said. “Often, they don’t. Everyone should have a healthy understanding that bad things happen, Murphy is alive and well, and you always have to have a Plan B.”

First-time entrepreneurs often also underestimate the amount of work, effort, and time that will be required to get their company launched and funded. It takes far longer, is much harder, and not for the faint of heart, Arnold cautioned. “It’s a huge commitment, you’re going to spend a bunch of years of your life at it, and you have to be really committed to do that,” he said.

But the right mentors can help steer new entrepreneurs on that path. Arnold thinks that many of the teams coming to the Deshpande Center are coming as much for the Catalysts’ help as they are for the funding — Bhatia of Glympse told him she applied because she wanted a Catalyst, more than she wanted the funding. “It’s an honor to be part of the Catalyst group, a bunch of people who are really committed to the Center and the success of the products,” he said. “They’re people who have been successful as entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, and have a lot to offer and give freely of their time.”

When he is not mentoring at the Deshpande Center or at MIT’s Venture Mentoring Services, Arnold skis, plays tennis, hikes, and travels with his wife. He plans to climb Mount Elbrus, the tallest mountain in Europe, next summer.

He ran into Goldberg, of Privo, at a Deshpande meeting a couple years ago. Greeting her, he asked, “Have you cured cancer yet?” Goldberg replied, half-jokingly, “Matter of fact, we have,” and filled him in on the day-to-day progress of the clinical trials.

“It was one of the most moving and gratifying experiences I’ve had, to be able to help and come back a couple years later and get that answer,” he said. “It was a very moving experience.”

— By Shirley Goh, Marketing and Communications Manager
MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation

February 2020