Sunday, April 10, 2011

Lavish Praise/Quick Ouster

What is Going On at

The University of Minnesota?

University fired Doris Taylor from the board of the promising spinoff firm that she founded. 

In glossy magazines, TV ads and special appearances, the University of Minnesota has promoted Doris Taylor as a brilliant star.

Her groundbreaking research that led to the reanimation of an animal heart has been saluted by Hillary Clinton and Barbra Streisand, and hailed by the university as one of its most promising discoveries.

But just five months after publicly vaulting Taylor into business to commercialize her technology, the university quietly fired her from the board of the company she founded. Now the taxpayer-supported firm on which the U has pinned big hopes is trying to survive its start-up phase without its star scientist.

While Taylor remains engaged in research, she is otherwise no longer involved with the company.

"I have no firsthand idea what the company is doing or what its goals and directions are,'' she said.

The change was never announced by the U or the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) despite Miromatrix's heavy reliance on public funds.

Stuart Mason, the U's chief investment officer, declined to elaborate on Taylor's ouster except to say "all was not going completely smoothly" at the company.

When the spinoff was announced in February 2010, Tim Mulcahy, the U's vice president for research, said that Taylor's research "holds the potential to launch an entirely new industry'' on the scale of the $95 billion medical device industry.

Starting in 2007, Taylor was featured prominently by the U as a symbol of bold ingenuity. In a 2010 video, she mused about building bio-artificial organs for transplants. "Imagine ... you could be your own donor," she said.

Known for a playful streak and the sign in her lab that says, "Trust Your Crazy Ideas,'' Taylor also is a fighter.

...Taylor felt her questions about the company's finances and direction were being stonewalled.

"Because I'm a scientist and because I'm curious, I asked a lot of questions, and that wasn't particularly well received," she said.

Taylor put her questions, including how the company was spending its limited cash, into writing for a July board meeting.

"We all had what I thought was an open, honest conversation, and I left,'' she said.

Hours later, Taylor's phone rang as she prepared to go to Berlin for a Frontiers in Cardiovascular Biology meeting. It was Sembrowich with "unfortunate news." She'd been voted off the board by the U and Cohen, which between them controlled a majority of the stock.

"I had a lump in my throat because it's hard when the people you value don't value you in return,'' Taylor said.

Cohen said he didn't know who voted the U's 560,000 shares against Taylor.  

Mason said he spent several days evaluating how he should vote the U's shares. He spoke with Cohen and other board members, but not with Taylor. "I'm not sure that a discussion with Doris would have changed my mind,'' he said.

Mason said he consulted at least three university officials, including Jay Shrankler, executive director of the Office for Technology Commercialization.

Shrankler denied talking to Mason about the vote. Her removal was purely a company matter, he said.

Taylor's dismissal occurred during a period of financial instability, according to Peter Bianco, DEED's paid observer of Miromatrix. He wrote last September that the business was on the verge of collapse unless new money could be raised.

Bob Isaacson, who manages business subsidies for DEED, said the level of Taylor's involvement doesn't matter as long as the company has her technology and is moving forward. But experts say that university spinoffs are far more likely to flourish when the founding scientist stays on during the early years.

"If there is a star scientist deeply involved, the probability of that firm being successful is much higher, on the order of 100 times higher,'' said UCLA Professor Michael Darby

The Kauffman Foundation's Lesa Mitchell, who studies how universities commercialize technology, said it's normal for founders of spinoffs to exit -- but only after several years.

Taylor's quick dismissal could backfire on the university, since "their retention of faculty and how they treat faculty is everything,'' Mitchell said.

Taylor said she remains committed to translating the technology into health-care solutions.

"We've developed something that can save lives. People deserve to have access to it," she said.




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