What it takes to be a Successful Entrepreneur: DukeGEN sits down with Matthew Kane of Precision BioSciences, Inc.

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 Matt Kane: While working on his Fuqua MBA in 2006, Matt co-founded Precision BioSciences, Inc., an d continues to serve as CEO.  Prior to Fuqua, Matt helped build Suros Surgical Systems, a venture-backed, medical device company.  Suros was acquired in 2006 for $240 million after generating $30 million in revenue during 2005.  He was named one of the “40 Under 40” by the Triangle Business Journal and has worked with two seed stage venture capital firms. 

After receiving his mechanical engineering degree from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Matt started his career working for Cummins, Inc., the largest independent diesel engine company in the world.  He spent about 2 years there, and worked as a mechanical engineer stress testing diesel engines, even driving commercial trucks.  It was at this early stage in his career, that Matt learned the important lesson of preparation, “You have to be prepared for ALL contingencies, address them, and address them confidently.”

From Cummins, he went back to Rose-Hulman to begin work on his Bio-Engineering Masters.  During this time, he also worked for RHV, which was both a venture fund and a start up incubator.  This led to an opportunity to join Suros Surgical Systems, a medical device startup.  While at Suros, Matt was able to closely observe the building of a national sales force and the eventual raising of $12 million in venture funding in 2004 (Suros raised $18 million in total).  Matt credits much of the Suros’ success to the intelligent approach that Suros management took to funding the business.  Instead of seeking to raise venture capital in the early stages of development, the firm utilized angel financing and focused on generating revenue quickly.  Successful execution then left Suros in a strong position to raise venture capital on favorable terms and at a time when the interests of management and investors were well aligned. 

When Matt was at Suros, a light bulb came on.  He saw how both the technical side and business side of a new business came together; that’s when he became interested in managing the process of starting a business himself.  The MBA was the next logical step. 

Matt had always been interested in schools like MIT Sloan and Stanford GSB that had a close interaction with their technical programs.  However, at Duke, there seemed to be a shortage of efforts to exploit great ideas and technologies - in his words, “I saw an opportunity to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond than a smaller fish in a bigger pond – in other words, by having an opportunity to take on greater responsibility, I would also have an opportunity to tackle greater challenges and make a greater impact.” 

Where did Precision BioSciences start?

“It was all because of a two year olds birthday party: During the first quarter of my second year at Fuqua, a classmate of mine informed me that he was going to be attending a two-year olds birthday party.  Of course I made fun of him – later I wished I hadn’t.  That night, he gave me a phone call, to tell me that he had met the inventor of an incredible new technology -  a technology that was to become the core of Precision.”   

They went on to form a company, and entered the Duke Start-Up Challenge.  “We were fortunate enough to raise $750,000 in convertible debt in early 2006, even before the Start-Up Challenge completed.” 

“The Duke Start-Up Challenge was a great experience for the team.  We got some good perspectives on the business plan, built up our networks, and met Smith Anderson, one of the law firms we work with.  We also worked with Professor Jon Fjeld, who allowed us to bring the idea/company into the Duke New Ventures Clinic.  The course was useful to sharpen the business model.  Within six months, we booked our first revenues with a Fortune 500 company, eventually leading to a multi-million dollar partnership.”

Successfully execution enabled Precision to repay its convertible note in full, with interest by January 2008 - avoiding the conversion of debt into equity.  Since then, Precision has been growing organically from revenues generated through partnerships in the ag-biotech field, as well as by securing several government funded grants from the NIH and the State of North Carolina. 

What drives Matt today?

The challenges - What I love about Precision is that we face so many different challenges on a daily basis.  Our technology is constantly evolving and improving and we now have to have the ability to enter into exceedingly difficult and broad markets.  This means that we have to continue to refine our business model and expectations.  As a technology platform based company - our Directed Nuclease Editor™ (DNE) has applications ranging from agriculture to human therapeutics, making it tremendously interesting and challenging.  The challenge of integrating all the facets needed to keep the company executing on our evolving strategy is both tremendous and a heck of a lot of fun.”

What about failure?

“When it comes to avoiding failure, the most important thing is to anticipate the extreme range of possible outcomes, and then to plan out how your business will adapt to these different outcomes.  Nothing ever goes completely according to plan.  At Precision, we plan for the best and worst case, and many in between cases.  This enables us to roll with the punches that inevitably occur as the business develops.  Focus is great, but focus without considering alternatives can be a huge mistake."

"People often tell me that we’ve just gotten lucky and maybe that’s true, but as they say ‘luck is equal parts preparation and opportunity’ and I believe that by being aggressive in seeking opportunity and by spending the time to prepare, you make luck happen.  We try very hard to never get into a position where we feel like there is only one path to success; you have to keep enough options open.  This keeps us from behaving desperately, and thinking irrationally.”

What key attributes entrepreneurs must possess?

“It all depends on the company, product, widget and people you are working with.  Sometimes a hard approach is best, other times a softer touch is required - it depends on the team you’re managing.  Rather than define this, its more important to define what is most important for a particular opportunity, and whether the entrepreneur’s chosen approach fits the environment.”  Put another way, a successful entrepreneur must be highly self aware, perceptive, and adaptive.

What about passion?

“Unchecked it can be a negative, but on the whole I believe that it is absolutely necessary to have passion for your business.  The team sees that and thrives from the energy you can create.  But it has to be checked; it’s essential to ensure that you are not operating on passion alone.  We try to spend time talking to others in the field to confirm our assumptions and we have an advisory board that we consult with.  You must be able to act rational and cold sometimes, sleep on things, and try to approach problems from different perspectives.” 

Any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs at Duke?

“I like to encourage people to think hard and try to understand what they really want out of their careers and lives.  Make sure that their personal and professional lives are meshed well.  If you’re not ready to start a company, given both the professional and personal risks, then don't.  But if you're more afraid of not doing it – as I was -, then simply commit to it, and don't let anyone stop you.  That said, I do recommend that you discuss your decision with those more experienced than you and allow them to help shape your plan; but it is a decision that you have to make, and you shouldn't be dissuaded if you really believe in it.”

Where will Precision BioSciences be in five years?

“I see Precision remaining at the cutting edge of biotechnology, developing new and innovative products, and ultimately see Precision making a tremendous and positive impact in the field of biotechnology in terms of what we are currently able to do.” 

How Matt defines success?

“If I have helped Precision overcome tremendous obstacles that ultimately result in products that make a positive impact on the market and are rewarded by the market - then I have succeeded.  On a personal level, I would love to see our technology used someday to cure a genetic disease – who wouldn’t?”


Read more profiles of Duke alumni entrepreneurs