Biotech Startup Specialist

It’s a bright Friday afternoon, and the sunlight pours into the glass-faced foyer of the Mitchell Cancer Institute, in Mobile. Michael Chambers, president and CEO of Swift Biotechnology, clutches an oversized coffee mug and explains he’s been on the road for the past several days attending speaking engagements throughout the region. Where exactly? “Let me think about that for a second, ” he says with a tired smile.

If it seems like Chambers is a busy man, that’s because he is. Swift Biotech, working in collaboration with MCI, is developing screens and diagnostics for ovarian and endometrial cancer, the ramifications of which could be substantial for women’s health and the healthcare system. This particular research has even garnered international attention. In 2013, the technology was awarded the Eugene Bricker Award at the international meeting of the Society of Pelvic Surgeons in Dusseldorf, Germany, and a year earlier received a $1.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The path for lawyer turned angel investor has been a winding one that continues to follow unexpected turns.

In November, Chambers was tapped to serve as the University of South Alabama’s assistant vice president for research innovation. He’ll move from CEO to chairman of the board at Swift. Chambers describes his new job at the university as a “culmination” of many things, namely his extensive experience with startup companies and angel investing. 

“I’ve always loved to do stuff like that, ” Chambers, an Anniston native, says of startup businesses. As an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, Chambers started a business selling dorm refrigerators to his peers. “And then in law school (at Alabama), I had a limited edition art mail order company that I created with a friend.” The pair commissioned an artist to paint the law building and mailed order forms out to graduates. 

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After receiving a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to study international law in France and a Swiss Confederation Fellowship, which allowed him to earn his doctorate in Switzerland, Chambers landed at a law firm in Mobile. Soon thereafter, he met his wife Rosemary (now a Mobile County circuit judge) and realized he wasn’t leaving Mobile any time soon. “She had a very strong-knit and warm family in Mobile.”

When a business opportunity presented itself to Chambers, he found himself in the right position to take advantage of it. “I had some success as an attorney, and my firm had had some success, so it gave me a little bit of flexibility.”

Chambers’ brother-in-law, a professor on the medical faculty at Johns Hopkins, invented a procedure to help treat ocular disease, but he needed somebody to market it. “We sat over a dining room table outside of Baltimore, and the company was born.” As president and CEO of InnoRx, Chambers completed 70 disclosure agreements, negotiated a license and, in 2005, negotiated the sale of the company to Minneapolis-based SurModics Inc. without an investment banking firm.

“At that point I kind of stepped back and took some time off, ” Chambers says. “It was a pretty wicked five-year stretch.”

When Chambers did go back to work, it was for the Birmingham-based law firm of Cabaniss Johnston, but he soon started looking for another investment opportunity. “It’s a little bit of an adrenaline rush to start a company and build it, ” Chambers explains. “And then if you have a successful exit, something that doesn’t happen all the time, it’s great. You kind of get the bug.”

The more Chambers learned about the technology being developed by doctors at the University of South Alabama, particularly the ovarian cancer screening tool, the more he was drawn in. 

“It appealed to me because it was a critical need. There’s no real effective, accurate screen or diagnostic for ovarian cancer, and a considerable amount of women die every year because they’re diagnosed too late to be saved.”

That’s the problem Swift Biotechnology is trying to solve. Chambers says that the test, which is similar to a Pap smear, provides the best shot at diagnosing ovarian cancer early enough to swing the survival rate drastically in the patient’s favor. 

“The reason I got involved with this technology with Swift is because there are some things people are not going to touch, because they’re just so difficult and they take so long, and that’s a problem. Ovarian cancer is one of those.”

Although intrigued by the possibility of developing other biotechnology, Chambers noticed “a lack of an organized angel network throughout the state.” An angel network is a group of accredited investors who assist fledgling companies in need of capital. Gov. Bob Riley called for the creation of an Alabama Science & Technology Roadmap, and Chambers was selected to help create and organize angel networks throughout Alabama. This led Chambers and others to develop the Mobile-based Gulf Coast Angel Network, today one of the largest of its kind in the state. Its mission is to help entrepreneurs commercialize technology born in the region.

As an angel investor, Chambers says there are several things to look out for. First, it’s important to remember that all startups are high risk. Chambers estimates that only three out of 10 survive. “The lesson learned there would be that betting on the people involved is as important as the product.

“One of the biggest issues I see is that people have a great idea but they cannot tell me what the product is that they’re going to sell that will be in demand, ” he says. “When you say, ‘Just tell me what the product is, why it will be great, why people need it and why someone else can’t duplicate it, ’ many of those great ideas fall by the wayside, because people can’t articulate that.”

Chambers sums up his advice in a couple of sentences: “Good management with passion. That’s very critical, because these things take a while.”

Now, with his new position as the University of South Alabama vice president for research innovation, Chambers can use his experience in commercializing products to help bring the university’s products and discoveries into the marketplace and meet the institution’s goal of public-private partnerships that “develop a strong regional innovation ecosystem that supports economic growth.”

Breck Pappas and Dan Anderson are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Mobile, and Pappas is on the editorial staff of Mobile Bay Magazine.

Text by Breck Pappas • Photo by Dan Anderson

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