Michael Weiner knows how to turn a laboratory experiment into a product with market potential.
As CEO of Biophan Technologies Inc., Weiner is involved with the technology transfer of a new pacemaker to the cardiac pacemaker industry.
Weiner, 54, is responsible for protecting the firm’s intellectual property, raising capital and marketing its products.
“Our initial mission was to make an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) compatible pacemaker,” he says. “But our future is much broader, including all biomedical devices that have metal to make them MRI-compatible.”
Biophan has teamed with Wilson Greatbatch, the Buffalo-area inventor of the original implantable cardiac pacemaker, to develop a pacemaker that will allow wearers to undergo diagnostic scans for cancer and other degenerative diseases.
“MRI is so much superior than anything else for looking at tissue that it is a real tragedy if people can’t get it when they need it,” Weiner says. “So why build that problem into products if there is a solution?”
Biophan is located at High Technology of Rochester Inc.’s Lennox Tech Enterprise Center. The firm employs 17 staffers-with offices in Buffalo and New York City. The company’s top management reports to Weiner.
The staff has identified several product applications for MRI-compatible technology that spans 38 patents. Biophan’s patent applications contain more than 1,000 claims covering over one dozen medical devices. They range from pacemakers to intraluminal MRI coils.
The technology replaces metal wire leads with fiber optics to make medical devices MRI-safe and compatible.
“The patents cover every biomedical product we know of or can envision that we can make MRI-safe,” Weiner says.
Pacemakers normally are used when a heart has weak and irregular beats. The electrical pulses generated by pacemakers pass through metal wire before reaching a patient’s heart. An MRI scan could heat the wire, causing scarring of the heart tissue and damage to the pacemaker battery, along with other risks.
This could be a deterrent for patients needing an MRI scan, used in the diagnosis of several medical conditions. Biophan’s pacemaker allows the use of an MRI scan.
In addition to pacemaker development, the company is involved in the research and development of patent rights for the use of antisense gene therapy technology to block the HIV virus. Biophan has entered an agreement with the National Institutes of Health and the University of Rochester to conduct research on the HIV patents.
With Weiner’s help, Biophan has raised more than $3 million in funding from private investors.
“We are working on raising more funding with several institutional investors,” he says.
The company also plans to hire more staffers, tapping local talent.
“We do a lot of our work with independent contractors and consultants to keep our costs low,” Weiner says. “We will hire more people, over time.”
Weiner declined to project Biophan’s expected revenues. The publicly traded firm expects to remain in development phase for at least another 12 months, Securities and Exchange Commission documents state.
The firm’s patent portfolio will help it enter the billion-dollar pacemaker market. Biophan reported some $1.2 million in total current assets, including cash and marketable securities for the nine months ended Nov. 30. The company reported a net loss of $1.1 million during the same period.
“The pacemaker business is $6 billion in sales and growing,” he says. “And that is just one segment. If they determine that all pacemakers have to be MRI-compatible, there is a good chance they would have to work with us because of all the patents.”
Biophan also could be a takeover target for cardiac pacemaker firms, Weiner adds.
“If they decided we might be a competitor and erode their market, how much would they pay to acquire us?” he says. “So our value vs. our revenue are two different equations.”
The company is going to meet with the Food and Drug Administration regarding the new pacemaker.
“We are finishing the design,” Weiner says.
Born in Brooklyn, Weiner was attracted to business soon after he finished high school. He joined a liberal arts program at Hunter College in Manhattan, but a calling to become an entrepreneur steered him in another direction.
“I spent a few years in college, but I wanted to become an entrepreneur,” he says. “So I got involved in several fast-food businesses around Manhattan.”
Weiner also worked as a typographer in New York City.
In 1970, Weiner decided to move to a warmer climate and dabble in something new-commercial fishing.
“I got fascinated by commercial fishing,” he says. “So I went down to Florida and bought a fishing boat.”
Weiner had planned to leave after one season, but he ended up staying for nearly five years.
“It was hook-and-line fishing off the east coast of Florida,” he says. “And I loved it.”
As a commercial fisherman, Weiner helped create a trade association of fishermen. He also created a fishermen’s cooperative, composed of roughly 200 boats.
“We had a lot of problems with fish dealers at that time,” Weiner says. “There was a lot of price-fixing. We even filed a lawsuit and stopped it.”
Around that time Weiner met his future wife, Sandra. The couple were married in 1971.
Weiner pursued his career as a fisherman until Xerox Corp. machines caught his fancy.
“I fell in love with Xerox machines,” he says. “By the ’70s they had some pretty sophisticated machines. At that time they could do 60 copies a minute.”
So Weiner decided to join Xerox. After speaking with a fellow fisherman who worked at the document company, he planned to meet with the sales manager at the firm.
“Fortunately they had a sales manager whose love was to go fishing, that was his dream,” Weiner says. “So he agreed to see me.”
Landing a job at Xerox, however, was not easy.
“They were not hiring at that time and especially not commercial fishermen,” he says. “But I was fairly persistent and I didn’t think there was any good enough reason for them not to hire me.”
After some eight months of discussions, Weiner joined Xerox in 1975 as a trainee salesman in the Daytona Beach area. Weiner soon was promoted to sales manager and was transferred to Orlando, where he oversaw Xerox’s sales in central Florida.
Technology became an integral part of Weiner’s career.
“I bought one of the early personal computers and I had programmed the price plans for Xerox on it,” he says. “I also used it to do budget and (sales) territory analysis.”
News that Weiner had a knack for computers traveled to Xerox offices here.
“I had figured out an anomaly in the sales compensation plan,” he says. “They asked me to come to Rochester and help re-engineer the compensation plan.”
Xerox managers were eager to bring Weiner here.
“Mike was unusually well-known at Xerox. He had a stream of ideas of product enhancements, which was unusual for a sales manager,” says Paul Wetenhall, venture coach at the Lennox Tech Enterprise Center and previously Weiner’s supervisor at Xerox.
Wetenhall asked Weiner to consider a transfer.
“He was constantly peppering us with new ideas from Florida,” he adds. “And we said, ‘Why not have him come here?'”
By then Weiner was settled in Florida and was hesitant to return to New York.
“When I left Brooklyn, I told everyone that if a palm tree couldn’t grow in New York, neither could I,” he jokes.
But Xerox managed to convince Weiner to move.
“They convinced me that the job was central to their business and it would get me a lot of exposure to different things,” he says.
Weiner assumed the post of manager of compensation planning at Xerox in 1981. Three years later he was promoted to manager of software expansion.
“I was fascinated by innovation and software coming out of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center,” Weiner says. “Especially with xerography-how Xerox had taken an idea that was rejected by so many people and made it a great success.”
Weiner’s thirst for entrepreneurial ventures drove him and Wetenhall to construct a business plan for Microlytics Inc. in the mid-1980s.
The pair pitched their idea to the venture capital arm of Xerox, which agreed to fund the project. It spun out a portion of its technology, related to computational linguistics and data compression.
Microlytics paved the way for Weiner’s entry into the technology transfer business.
“It was a technology transfer company that took technology out of the lab where they had rejected it as not valuable,” Weiner says. “So I have been in love with that ever since. And everything I have done since has been some sort of transfer of technology-to find applications that are successful.”
Microlytics grew from two employees to 15 employees in three years, with revenues totaling $14 million, Weiner says.
“We created a No. 1 technology for spell checkers and thesauri,” he adds. “We had licenses with several companies like Sony, Microsoft and Casio.”
Microlytics entered the consumer electronics business a few years later. In the late 1980s, the company became a subsidiary of SelecTronics Inc.
“For five years it was very successful,” Weiner says. “Sales grew fairly quickly but consumer electronics was a tough business and it was not a business our management knew very well, so we didn’t make money.”
Weiner left Microlytics in 1992. He became involved in another tech transfer initiative, this time with Syracuse University.
As chairman and co-founder of TextWise LLC, Weiner and his team worked in information retrieval, text extraction and related areas.
“We grew with large government contracts,” he says.
TextWise later merged with Manning & Napier Advisors Inc. The merged firm became the research arm of Manning & Napier Information Services.
MNIS’ DR-LINK text-retrieval program received a lot of attention in the intelligence community. DR-LINK tapped into a database of more than 15 million documents, dating back to 1952.
“The goal was to take some unique ability to analyze and understand the written word,” Weiner says.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office signed to use DR-LINK for researching pending patent applications. In addition, companies such as IBM Corp. and Motorola Inc. became MNIS clients.
“The stint at MNIS taught me a lot about intellectual property,” Weiner says. “I learned a lot about patents and the real economic value of patents.”
Patents into profits
Weiner’s fascination with patents led him to start Technology Innovations LLC in 1999. The firm was established to help turn unused patents into profits.
“I realized there was an opportunity for technology transfer as a process,” Weiner says. “There are inventors who really know their business and maybe when they have 50 patents they retire. So what happens to their 51st idea? It is lost.”
While heading Technology Innovations, Weiner crossed paths with Greatbatch, the pacemaker inventor who today holds more than 220 patents.
“I liked what Mike was doing,” Greatbatch says. “I had some patents that were sitting there doing nothing and he was enthusiastic.”
Weiner’s ability to comprehend technical details impressed Greatbatch.
“For a non-technical person, he really understands the technical side of things and he is a quick learner,” he says. “He is also an aggressive promoter and an excellent fund-raiser.”
As a result of their meeting, Weiner left with Greatbatch’s HIV patents.
“I was shocked when Wilson said he would give my company the HIV patents,” Weiner recalls. “I went and bought about 60 books to learn about HIV and DNA.”
Technology Innovations spun off Biophan LLC, formed to pursue biomedical and nanotechnology innovations. Greatbatch’s work on the MRI-compatible pacemaker started at Biophan.
“It began as an embryonic project in the company and was spun out as GreatBio Technologies Inc.,” Weiner explains.
Greatbatch was working on methods to shield the pacemaker’s components from magnetic frequencies emitted through MRI.
“We were making this hermetically sealed pacemaker that had the optics inside of it, which did not solve the problem,” Weiner says.
The Biophan team, with Greatbatch’s help, worked toward replacing the metal wire in the pacemaker with a fiber-optic cable.
“The cable would deliver electricity using light,” Weiner says. “Wilson and his team figured out that we could put in a chip (in the pacemaker), so when a heart needs a beat, a light blinks and powers the pacemaker.”
But GreatBio Technologies often was confused with Greatbatch’s battery firm, Wilson Greatbatch Technologies Inc., Weiner says. That confusion prompted changing the name to Biophan Technologies.
Technology Innovations continues to exist. It owns 57 percent of Biophan LLC and has interests in several patents.
“Technology Innovations recently assisted Microlytics in collecting more than $2 million in royalties due from a licensee,” Weiner says.
Biophan has lured talent from Johnson & Johnson’s Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics Inc.
Jeffrey Helfer, vice president of engineering, was attracted to Biophan’s intellectual property portfolio.
“I saw the opportunity to take the intellectual property portfolio to develop it further for product applications,” he says.
Weiner’s dedication helps the innovation process, Helfer adds.
“He is constantly challenging the breadth of opportunities,” he says. “He almost acts as an enabler or a mentor coach, to determine what needs to be taken forward. He finds opportunities on the business side that we hadn’t thought of before.”
Biophan faces the challenge of convincing the pacemaker industry to convert to its product.
“We suspect that one player will want to be an innovator and have this as an advantage,” Weiner says. “So it is a matter of when we have one (player) that wants to make a difference in the market.”
Biophan could hold the exclusive rights to the technology or transfer it to one company, he adds.
“We have to negotiate how long a player should have this exclusive because eventually we want all pacemakers to be MRI-compatible and not just be closely held,” he says.
One way to convince the market of the MRI-compatible pacemaker’s potential could be finding more applications for the technology.
“By adapting to other applications is one way to do it. To show more and more proof that it works,” Weiner says. “Cardiologists seem to be very supportive.”
Weiner does not see competition as a stumbling block to Biophan’s success.
“I am sure that some of the major pacemaker companies have looked at this (Biophan’s technology),” he says. “I don’t know of anyone else with this solution.”
Biophan plans to market the implantable pacemaker to manufacturers.
“The prospect of dealing in an environment with large players does not faze Mike at all. He sees it as an opportunity,” says Stuart MacDonald, vice president of research and development at Biophan and a former Johnson & Johnson employee.
Reputation for innovation
Weiner is known for his ability to link innovation with marketplace needs.
Lennox Tech’s Wetenhall recalls speaking about Weiner’s expertise at a recent meeting with representatives from SUNY Buffalo, Rochester Institute of Technology and others.
“Everyone knew Mike,” he says. “He is a robust networker and keeps expanding that network. He is able to marshal a lot of resources.”
Biophan employees appreciate Weiner’s hands-off managerial style.
“He is a complementary team member,” Helfer says. “He is very trusting and gives us a broad sense of responsibility.”
When Weiner is not poring over patents and raising capital, the Webster resident enjoys riding his 1975 fully restored Kawasaki 900 motorcycle.
“I love driving along the lake and past the farmland areas,” he says.
Fishing is now strictly a hobby, but Weiner still spends time boating in the summer.
“I can’t catch any fish up here,” he jokes. “It is hard. It is a lot easier in Florida.”
He also enjoys traveling to places such as China, Hong Kong and Japan.
Weiner is on the board of Technology Innovations and Biophan LLC. He also is a managing partner of Speech Compression Technologies L.P., a partnership formed with Xerox.
Innovation is important to Weiner. He plans to continue to be involved with taking Biophan products to new markets.
“I like working with talented people on making improvements in biotechnology,” he says. “Look at Wilson (Greatbatch); he is 82 years old and he is still innovating. It is a lot of fun working with people like that.”
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04/12/02 (C) Rochester Business Journall