Entrepreneurial Spirit Part of Physician's DNA

Although Greg Stein was the first physician in his family, he comes from a long line of entrepreneurs. After his residency he went back to school to obtain an MBA, which led financial services, then biotech and founding multiple pharma companies.

In the late 1980s when Gregory Stein, MD, MBA, made the decision to pursue a career in medicine, the field was transitioning from physicians who were considered generalists to those with a more specialty-focused type of practice. That left Stein with limited options because he didn’t want to specialize; he wanted to do it all.

“When I was growing up our family physician was just a fantastic guy who was a good family friend,” Stein recalls. “He was my pediatrician, he took care of my parents, he delivered my sister, and he took out my tonsils. For me, that was a real doctor — somebody who could do it all. He had all the skill sets.

“And in the early 1980s the only available areas where you could do that were you could go into family practice and practice in South Dakota or somewhere and do all of those things, or you could go into emergency medicine.”

Stein went into emergency medicine — but he didn’t stop there.

DNA for an MBA

A quick glance at Stein’s résumé illustrates a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Currently, Stein is co-founder, president and chief executive officer at Curtana Pharmaceuticals, which focuses on the development of cancer stem cell-targeted therapeutics for the treatment of glioblastoma and other brain cancers.

But that’s just the latest in an impressive list of health care-related business ventures Stein has helped to engineer.

“I think it’s in my DNA,” he explains. “I come from a long line of entrepreneurs in my family. I was the first physician in the family. And when I got into my career I couldn’t deny that I was an entrepreneur at heart and had to follow that passion.”

Stein began following that “passion” at a very early point in his career, and his intent was, within emergency medicine, to go into either an administrative role, or to branch out into a business opportunity down the road. But when he signed up for his residency program and applied to the University of Illinois, he experienced a setback.

“[The University of Illinois] had a very innovative program in that they had a number of different tracks you could do that extended the duration of the residency, but gave you the opportunity to sort of sub-specialize,” says Stein.

One of the options was obtaining an MBA at the university and Stein expected he would simultaneously be getting a dual residency and an MBA as part of the program. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

“After my first year of residency, the governing board for residencies put a kibosh on it because they felt the residency director didn’t have enough direct control over the course content of the MBA classes,” Stein says.

Undeterred, Stein would later attend the University of California, San Diego, Rady School of Management, where he obtained an MBA with an entrepreneurial focus on biotech strategy in 2006.

Long list of accomplishments

Early in his entrepreneurial career, Stein took a detour into financial services where he served first as president of Dynamic Asset Management, Inc., a financial and investment management firm, and, later, as president of Axelia Capital, an organized hedge fund. But he missed the sciences. He missed medicine.

And, he adds, “quite honestly, the financial services industry is not, on a day-to-day basis, terribly exciting or challenging.”

Stein returned to his DNA roots to focus on identifying innovative technology for commercial development in the medical therapeutic, device and diagnostic areas. He served as senior director of product marketing at Genoptix, a specialized laboratory service provider focusing on delivering personalized and comprehensive diagnostic services to community-based hematologists and oncologists.

In March 2010, Stein co-founded Sova Pharmaceuticals, a privately held biopharmaceutical company, where he served as vice president of operations and medical affairs until recently launching Curtana.

Along the way, he’s learned some valuable lessons.

“I just don’t think there are any shortcuts,” Stein says. “Acquiring expertise in any area takes seven to 10 years, regardless of it being a physician, violin player, or a business person. You have to have patience, tenacity, and the ability to adapt. And the willingness to accept that you’re going to make mistakes along the way. But I’ve been fortunate that I get better and better with each new venture, and it gets easier and easier.”

Exciting opportunity

Stein says the launch of his new company, Curtana Pharmaceuticals, was predicated on a technology that came out of UCSD. It’s exciting, he says, and very rewarding in that, even though he has not been active in the clinical end of medicine, the work he’s doing will definitely impact that arena.

“That’s the reason I came back towards the industry side of medicine,” Stein says. “For example, if this glioblastoma therapy is effective, we can affect tens of thousands of individuals. That’s thousands more people than I saw annually as a clinician. And the impact will be significant for the people who have the benefit of that therapy, assuming we’re able to get it into the clinic.”

Of course, not every physician is desirous of being an entrepreneur. But for those who are, Stein says there are opportunities if you’re willing to put your dreams on hold for a few years. He compares it to an internist who decides to become a surgeon. What follows is another residency and six or seven years of paying your dues.

“But that said, I think if someone has a novel idea, search out someone you know on the business side who is entrepreneurial, and partner up with them,” Stein suggests.

He doesn’t recommend that physicians abandon their practices; instead, slowly get into business and consulting and remember the importance of networking, especially when you branch out of your practice.

“As a physician you’re sort of at the top of the pyramid, and your network is not super critical, because you have your practice and, for the large part, you don’t need a broad network in order to function,” Stein says. “When getting into the business side, it’s all about relationships; it’s all about people you know within your network. They’re not friends; they’re people you know in the business community who have shared interests. So, it’s important to start tapping into that network, build your network, and talk to a lot of people. Because ultimately if you’re persistent, you’ll find the right fit of somebody who has a connection, or experience, or the capital, or whatever it is you’re looking for.”