What it takes to be an Entrepreneur: DukeGEN sits down with Doug Eisner (’07) of GrassRoots Biotechnology

By Jozef Krakora

Many of us would love to start a new venture, but are often deterred.  Why?  Is it because it’s too risky. Maybe it is because one does not have the right background, or the opportunity just hasn’t presented itself yet?  Certainly there can many reasons.  DukeGEN has decided one great way to solve this mystery is to seek out successful entrepreneurs who did start their own ventures, and share their story in hopes of uncovering the secret ingredients to entrepreneurial success. 

Enter Doug Eisner

Doug worked for four years in law firms, big complex organizations that were often quite bureaucratic and gave him less autonomy than he would have liked.  Doug liked to handle cases his way, and was not a fan of all the structure and rules.  It was then that he became more interested in starting a business of his own, excited by the idea of having autonomy and to helping to build a business.  Doug decided to go to business school to find what he lacked: the “know how”, and the “idea”.

At Fuqua, Doug focused exclusively on entrepreneurship, and took all the classes he could find in this area.  In one class, Invention to Application, Doug was connected with a team of students, where they evaluated several university technologies and wrote a business plan around one they selected.  Doug also took Entrepreneurial Finance with David Robinson, Entrepreneurial Execution with Jon Fjeld, Intellectual Capital with Wes Cohen, and Venture Capital & Private Equity with Bill Megginson.  “These courses provided valuable insights into the strategies that entrepreneurs employ to deal with the many different issues they face.”

Doug spent his summer working with the North Carolina Small Business and Technology Development Center, where he advised two early-stage, high-tech startups on business planning, strategy, and market analysis.  “The SBTDC was a great opportunity that exposed me to two entrepreneurial enterprises.  Evaluating the products, markets and competition of these two businesses, I was able to gain an understanding of how to value the prospects of early-stage companies.  I learned a lot about marketing and competitive analysis by talking to prospective customers of these businesses.”

Doug also really enjoyed the Duke New Ventures Clinic with Jon Fjeld.  In Fjeld’s two term class, Doug was put together with a team of three other students and tasked with writing a business plan for a technology developed at Duke.  It was there he met Dr. Philip Benfey whose technology the team was assigned.  Doug thought Philip’s idea was very interesting and that Philip would be a good partner to start a business with.  He thought they could create a successful business – the humble beginnings of GrassRoots.  After the class, Doug continued to work with Philip, entering the plan into the Duke Startup Challenge. 

After graduation, Doug asked Philip if he wanted to start a company.  Doug says, “I got very lucky in getting hooked up with a technology that showed tremendous promise and a great partner with the reputation in his field that attracted the attention of the major companies in the industry and a fundamental understanding of the business issues.  Doug added, “I had the opportunity to join a number of startups.  Fuqua gave me the tools to evaluate those businesses and determine their prospects.”  

How did GrassRoots Biotechnology start?

Doug suggested finding the right opportunity was not easy, as most technologies he saw, would not have supported successful businesses.  GrassRoots was different.  He and Philip started with no money, but did have a solid strategy based upon the business plan written at Fuqua.  They didn’t really have a ready product either, but did have a platform technology that could produce many different products for the agriculture industry.  It was clear early on that VCs would not invest in a platform technology; they wanted a lead product to even consider investing in a company.

One of GrassRoots’ goals is to create better crops for the biofuel industry.  GrassRoots strategy was to develop its research with federal grants and to look to finance the company through a strategic alliance with an industry partner.  GrassRoots got an NSF STTR grant of $150,000 about a year after starting. The North Carolina Department of Commerce matched a portion of the STTR grant.  The money from this grant allowed GrassRoots to continue developing the technology.  Additionally, the grant supplied momentum and credibility with strategic partners.  Then they started talking with Monsanto, a large agricultural biotech company in this space, which sells agricultural products, such as seeds and weed killer.  The strategy was to form an alliance with such a company, and become its research partner.  GrassRoots signed the deal January 15, 2009. 

“Not having a scientific background has meant that I have had to work hard to understand the science and technology.  This has made some things more difficult for me.  Not understanding the technology, and not knowing the industry makes it harder to plan a good strategy for a company - but it’s crucial that you learn it, You don’t have to be an expert, but you need to sufficient level of understanding to help make good decisions.”  Doug came up to speed on the technology by self learning, reading on his own, and talking with Philip and others in the field.  “As the only non-scientist in the company, I bring a different perspective to issues we face.”

Key abilities Doug believes entrepreneurs must possess:
  • Deal with and be comfortable with uncertainty
  • Learn different skill sets quickly through different situations
  • Take responsibly readily in different areas
  • Think far into the future, despite being bogged down with day-to-day details
What keeps Doug and GrassRoots going?

The Matching grant from NC Department of Commerce helped sustain the company.  Now, Doug is more comfortable as GrassRoots has a little bit of a runway provided by the Monsanto deal.  “The key now is to execute on the research we are doing on Monsanto’s behalf.  Our platform technology provides a unique method to understand the complex network of gene expression that will enable us to discover gene promoters and genes to create better crops.”

Doug is most excited about his career because he:
  • He is helping build an organization from the ground up - putting the business pieces in place to grow the company
  • He deals with all the business issues from minutia to the strategic direction of the company
  • Today he is still the only businessperson at GrassRoots, and has more autonomy than he knows what to do with
How did Doug handle uncertainty?

“Since leaving the District Attorney's Office, I worked in an Internet company for a short while, just as the Internet was imploding.  The team did not function well.  It failed to make good decisions and commit to a specific strategy.  Being a part of this failed company was valuable experience.  I saw the importance of making clear, timely decisions.  Uncertainty is a given.” 

How did Doug handle discouragement?

“Some of my friends thought that I was crazy to start a business with no ready product and no money.  It took us a year to get funding.  We continued on the course we had set despite rejections from several would-be partners.  Small successes helped us keep momentum.” 

How valuable is passion?

“Passion can make you stick with an idea long after it’s viable.  But, it helps to be excited about what you're doing.”

What words of advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs at Duke?

“Get involved in entrepreneurial ventures and small companies.  You’ll get practical experience, and see whether you like the work and environment. Do the Duke Startup Challenge. Take the courses that will arm you with the skills you’ll need.”

How do you define success?

“We’re still building the company.  We need to execute on our research and put in place good management practices.  A key goal is to develop our biofuels business.  We’d like to create a well-run company that does cutting-edge research and product development, has a strong team of scientists and managers, and is a place where people are excited to work.  To be successful you need to be able to recognize and commit to good opportunities.  Luck also helps.” 

Read more profiles of Duke alumni entrepreneurs