Day in the Life Profile
A Day in the Life of David Mack, PhD’92: From Cell Biology to Venture Capitalism, and Back
By Cesar Guerro, MS II
"Venture capital isn’t something you go to school to learn how to do. There are no books or courses out there that teach how to invest in and build life science companies," David Mack, PhD'92 told me in an email sent prior to my visit. With this notion in mind, and a notebook filled with questions, I flew into San Francisco to meet with Dr. Mack, my host for the week. Leaving the airport, Dr. Mack filled me in on how he came to be involved in Alta Partners, a venture capital firm in the life sciences, and the road he traveled to arrive at his current position. He reminisced about his days in Chicago and Hyde Park, spoke about his involvement in the earlier days of biotechnology developing polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and described his current interest in cancer cell biology.
"Most MDs who ultimately enter venture capital have acquired very specialized knowledge with which they are able to develop an idea that will impact the industry."
—Dr. David Mack
A Day at One Embarcadero
"What I enjoyed most about the trip was just getting refocused…Spending time with Dr. Estes reminded me what all the work was for and why everything we learn is so important…It was great to recognize so many aspects of our training in practice."
—Mike King, MSI
"My "Day in the Life" experience with Dr. Brownstein gave me the opportunity to observe a very specialized procedure and to interact with a unique patient population that would otherwise not be readily available to me.”
—Chris Rishel, MSI
"Some of the discussions in ethics class always seemed to be somewhat theoretical until I saw them in the real world…I was surprised to learn how directly applicable the education from our ethics and social context classes was."
—Umar Yaqoob Khokhar, MSI
"Due diligence is essential," said Dr. Mack on our first working day, in reference to the importance of understanding the fine details of prospective medicines as well as the epidemiology and pathology processes of targeted diseases. He stated that most MDs who ultimately enter venture capital have acquired very specialized knowledge with which they are able to develop an idea that will impact the industry.
We shifted our discussion toward the current and future market for pharmaceuticals and to biotechnology’s role within that market. According to Dr. Mack, big pharma has a lot of cash on hand, and a pipeline with few prospects. Coupled with the fact that major revenue earners will soon come off patent means pharma is looking to buy biotechnology companies with future blockbuster drugs. This is where people such as Dr. Mack come in. They have the specialized knowledge to create companies capable of making an innovative idea a reality.
Later in the day I sat in on a presentation on a late-stage company, TransMedics, founded and started by a physician. They have developed a new system for transporting transplanted hearts; instead of the old system of putting hearts on ice, they have created a device that keeps the hearts warm and pumping. This allows for more time in transit and has decreased mortality among heart recipients. The University of Chicago Medical Center is currently among the hospitals chosen to participate in the stage III clinical trials.
A Day in Palo Alto
Medical therapy has had an increasing shift towards protein-based therapies, but with this shift come new challenges. A current barrier to developing these medicines is the cost and difficulty of production. "Every company has a list of hard-to-make proteins that they would love to develop into drugs." To meet this challenge, Dr. Mack has assembled a team to develop cell-free protein expression. Instead of making products like Etanercept in hamster ovary cells, the idea is to produce an extract containing all the "machinery" like and chaperone proteins, and add them together with encoding DNA as reagents. This would allow for tighter control of protein synthesis, and avoid degrading enzymes.
Dr. Mack advised me that the best way to set myself up for a career in biotechnology is to be involved in the development of new technologies, whether that be discovering new pathways at the lab bench or overseeing research trials of new medical devices. My experience with Dr. Mack has given me a better understanding of how creative and innovative ideas are transformed into products that will have a positive impact on health care.