Fred Farina -- Caltech Fund

Fred Farina — The Caltech Fund

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Fred is the Chief Innovation and Partnerships officer at Caltech where he oversees the Tech Transfer office and recently set up two new funds : The Caltech Fund and the Wilson and Hill fund.

Fred gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how Caltech labs are run and how his team thinks about the translational potential of scientific work.

Today I am with Fred Farina. Fred is the chief innovation and partnerships officer at Caltech where he oversees the tech transfer office and recently set up two new funds–the Caltech Fund and the Wilson and Hill fund. Fred, thank you for coming on the podcast.

Maybe we start with a little bit of the overview of tech transfer and what you’re doing at Caltech.

That sounds good. So, let me go back in time a little bit, because you know, Caltech came to the tech transfer world a bit late compared to our peers like at MIT and Stanford who started MIT in the forties and, uh, Stanford in 1970. And we started in 1995, before that we didn’t have an office of tech transfer.

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And so, uh, you know, Caltech is really focused on fundamental research and, uh, although, uh, in addition to fundamental research these days, we’re looking at translational and other things. So things have changed over the last 20 some years that I’ve been in this business and at Cal tech, So we spent the first say decade working on establishing, uh, all the processes that tech transfer having to do patents and licensing and, you know, building out a team and the database and all that infrastructure that’s required. And very quickly, we started having a lot of patents, uh, to our name and, uh, you know, per faculty per.

Year, we, we beat a lot, all universities these days. And even at the time when we started, we were very aggressive. Uh, in, in spite of our size, we had something like, uh, we are number 1 0 2 with MIT in an absolute number of patents issued in universities for a long time. we were very aggressive and we did a lot of licenses and we’re somewhat focused on startups even from the get go. Uh, because a lot of these technologies coming out of universities are not mature enough to really be licensed, to establish companies while looking for sales within a short time.

just the basics though, of what you’ll have like a corporation would. Find you, because you have a patent and say, Hey, I wanna license this. What’s like sort of the basic flow. If it’s not going to, if a startup isn’t using.

Uh, yeah. And, and that’s rare, uh, you know, it’s that a corporation would come and say, we wanna license these patents that you have. Uh, usually it. It comes from within, uh, the faculty members working with the scientists at IBM or Merck or whatever company. And, uh, they build the collaboration and, and, and then from that work there’s patents that come out and the company may be interested in licensing them.

That’s more like that. This it’s not like. We, we would call cold call companies and, and try to sell patents that really not, uh, because of the early stage nature of what we do. Uh, so instead the focus has been on startups and all the programs that help get technologies more mature and more attractive for, uh, a VC basically to invest in the company and form a company around it.

 And so it starts typically with, you know, one of the, our associates in tech transfer, working with faculty members, they have a portfolio of faculty members. And, and so to start disclosing inventions, uh, we.

Discuss the value. And because when you patent inventions, you know, it’s expensive. So you have to make sure that at least there’s a hope that it’ll be commercialized. Um, so we have those discussions and from those discussions, maybe there’s an idea or desire to create a startup around it, uh, from the faculty of students, post docs involved.

Uh, and then that matures over several years, a lot of the time, and, and at that point, then we help with different things, including, uh, you know, raising, raising money, creating a pitch deck.

Uh, identifying milestones for the company to reach, uh, build building a team and, and where we’ve really changed over the years is that we’ve added programs that are much more, uh, hands on. And practical around that. And, and faculty and students maybe 10 years ago used to be more on their own in terms of fundraising.

And, and they did really well. You know, a lot of Catholic faculty don’t have a problem, but a lot of technologies. Earlier stage I needed, uh, a lot more maturing. Um, you know, didn’t get out because of maybe the lack of support.

And so there’s few, few things that, to help these companies get off the ground, uh, human support, people who understand technology,

For that we create an entrepreneur and residence program. And at the moment we have two EERs, uh, one life science, one, um, physical science that really focus on creating these companies.

 So I’m curious about sort of that funding gap. Um, I had Alex from Kairos on the podcast and he was saying that there are plenty of professors doing breakthrough research who won’t, you know, get a call back from a VC. Like, do you see that.

Yeah. And, and it’s what I mentioned earlier that because it’s too early

and they, you know, frankly, they do get callbacks, but they, because it’s Cal tech and, you know, uh, but the question is when they discuss where

the, the stage of the technology

and and they usually say, well, when you show X, Y,

Z, Then come back to me and then

I’ll be ready.

And so they want to see things that are much more

de-risk than say, 20 years ago where, you know, I guess the, the, the, the term risk capital was more applicable than now. You know, people are more, uh, cautious and, um, about what they invest in.

Hmm. Okay. So there’s funding when someone’s doing the research in the lab. Well, hopefully there’s funding. Um, and so take me through, so you guys, what will Caltech provide for, for those professors in those labs?

Yeah. So we have an internal, uh, sometimes people call gap fund or de-risking or proof of concept fund, uh, called the Rothenberg innovation initiative that was endowed by, uh, the Rothenberg family, uh, from Pasadena. Uh, and so, and that made a big difference for us because now we have about a million dollars a year to allocate to projects that have commercial potential and that’s, um, Strictly for, um, technical de-risking.

So proof of concept and we can give a hundred, 200, 2 50. For over two years, uh, to a lab to do that, to do that work. And many projects go to VCs right after that, uh, or in the middle of it, because that’s enough to.

To make them feel comfortable with investment. Uh, a lot of the time and many of these projects are still not ready because you don’t have a team around it really because you need business people as, as, as well as technical people and scientists and engineers, um, and you need a plan, you need a polished, um, bitch deck and all that stuff.

And, and that requires some kind of understanding of market and people who understand that who’ve been in that industry. And so we try to, to get that done,

but. To do that. We, uh, all, all of

these things that I mentioned to help the startup early

stage, we created this E I

R program, even without all that, the initial internal funding, plus the IR

help, some of these projects still


Half a million and million and million and a half to get to the next step as, as, as a seed So um, last year, about a year ago, actually exactly a year ago in January last year,

we launched a uh,

seed fund at Cal tech. do just that seed companies that are promising, uh, with half a million and million and million and a half, and hopefully position them for, uh, a series a, a year or two down the line. And, and so I can tell you more about, uh, Catholic seed fund versus the Wilson hill and how that

works. But, um, you know, basically it’s two funds working as one, um,

Okay. So if I’m a VC who thinks who really believes in investing where there’s fundamental research And, fundamental science, um, and would like to know more about your portfolio, you know, do I interface with Julian, Helen, your, your EERs.

Yeah, the they’re the primary,

uh, interface for startups. and so there have a pulse on everything that’s going on the stage of the

startups, where they’re looking for, where they’re

looking for management or funding or anything else.

And, um, yeah, you wanna tell me a little bit about Julie How, how, how do we. How do we get to know your portfolio better? And maybe paint a little bit more of a picture of Julian, Helen, who I both. I know both of them and they’re both awesome.

Julie as a serial entrepreneur, she’s done four or five companies and three of them have been acquired. And the most recent, uh, was a, uh, LIDAR company that was acquired by cruise automation, um, for autonomous driving vehicle. Um, and she also. Did a, a Cal tech startup

from JPL technology back in 2000, 2001 era.

 you know, phenomenal experience in terms of studying companies, raising money pitch techs. Building teams, all that, and that’s extremely valuable. Um,

and so, and Helen, uh, has, uh, been, uh, spent 13 years in am at Amgen in product development and bringing biosimilars

to market, uh, through the whole process of FDA and clinics and approvals all that.

Uh, and on the life science side where the path is a bit

more um, Say predetermined then in other areas, because you have regulatory things to go through and clinical trials

and et cetera, uh, that, uh, product development in, in, in a pharma company is very valuable

So tell me a little bit more about the work that’s going on in Cal tech. And I think you said there’s 300 profess. That



and like, you know, my dad’s a professor. I don’t think he

patents anything. Um, but like where is the

innovation happening right now? When you are looking at like a lot of the patents that.

are being created, is it life

sciences? Who’s doing the work. It’s

clearly not my father.

Well, it’s coming from, uh, you know, primarily three divisions. And you would expect that, um, that are maybe, uh, not as fundamental, but you know, things are changing as well. So they, primary ones are engineering and applied science obviously, uh, is a big one. Um, then chemistry, chemical engineering is also.

The other big one BI BI biological engineering as well. And there’s a lot of interplay between actually the three in medical devices. And, uh, even in,

in, in more pharma type things as, uh, engineering stuff applied to, you know, To that AI and all these new ways of looking at big data and all that. So, uh, these are the

three main ones.

And these days you also see things that are really exciting coming out of, uh, physics, math, astronomy, uh, including. Quantum computing, quantum science. We have a big push for quantum science and, and, uh, and that, and a big collaboration with AWS at the moment.

They actually have a building on campus, um, that, uh, is focused on building quantum computers, uh, and, uh, also AI and, uh, machine learning

and machine vision are also big.

Uh, so those are really interesting. So you you’re building up these two, is it two

big collaboration centers? I don’t know, for,

for, with AWS. what is the state of the art there?

Like what’s going, what,

what are you actually building with with AWS? I’m super curious.

Well, it’s, it’s complicated. Um, so. Two centers are their centers on our campus. Uh, so there’s part of the work that just their work and some of the faculty members have been involved and, and, you know, Taking, um, leave of absence and going to Ws for year or two, uh, to help build these, these labs. Uh, and, and so part of the work is just their work.

There’s part of the work

that just our work, because we do stuff

also at Cal tech and

quantum science outside of

what AWS is doing and AI And all

that, uh, and part is,

uh, collaborative. and so we have

projects in common as well. Um, and so there’s a continuum there, but, uh, you know, What I’m excited about

is that.

for the first time we have, you

know, a large company. Basically on campus, um, doing work that’s very, uh, that matches what Celtic wants to do in terms of fundamental aspects and, and, and, and with potential

really deep, uh, impact in society in these areas. And, and I’m also excited about

seeing the ecosystem develop around Caltech,

Um, having. Really high quality jobs

created by these companies,

Yeah, no, of course I’m excited by that. Um, as well. I think you introduced me to the term, the two body problem. Did you tell me that.


Um, yeah. Can you explain just how you are thinking about building up the Calta the, the Pasadena and surrounding ecosystem and what the two body problem is?

Well, the two body problem is, uh, I, I, I don’t like problem at maybe solution, but, um, it, when, you know, top universities, um, compete for the best faculty members and researchers. And so it’s all kinds of things that at the end of the day, Whether you go to Harvard or Caltech or MIT or Stanford, uh, you know, in terms of.

The resources and

the prestige, all that is probably similar. Right. I think we’re more unique because, uh, we, uh,

I think there’s more freedom from our

faculty, more creative and it’s more, um,

you know, hiring the best people and

giving them the resources to do whatever they want to do. And so from that standpoint,


And lower bureau bureaucracy. So I think we’re a lot more attractive ,but at the same time when we’re small and we can’t necessarily accommodate a spouse, that would also be a scientist or

a business person. And so when we hire those best people, the top

people that we have to compete, uh, for, with other

universities, uh, and whatever we can offer them

is always.

Helpful to tip the

scale to our side. And so, um,

oftentimes these people are married to very qualified scientists, engineers, business people, and looking for high

quality jobs. And if we have that, so because we can’t offer those a lot of the

times on campus, if we have them in the

ecosystem, uh, It’s really helpful.

And people may make a decision to come to Cal tech because, oh, my spars can get a job at AWS next door or,

uh, Mgen their labs down the street or at a startup that we have in our incubator. Um,

and it seems like there’s a lot of momentum right now in Pasadena on what you’re talking about, which is the really, Uh, deeper science and along those lines, can you also explain the relationship between Caltech and JPL?

Uh, sure. Um, so JPL is a F RDC federally funded

research, uh, and development center. Um, and it’s the only NASA center that’s actually, um, not fully NASA. The facilities

are NASA and, and we, the people are actually contact employees and we. We’re contracted by NASA to run JPL for NASA basically. And JPL is focused on, uh, robotic exploration of space.

What does JPL think of? Uh, Elon Musk?

I have no idea. I think generally then the aerospace, uh, community welcomes the additional, you know, spacecraft to go to space and then technologies and, and, and make it more, uh, a routine thing. Um, so I think generally, probably good. Um,

Um, and does the Caltech fund where you’re writing these million dollar checks? Uh, does


support. Technology and innovation coming out of JPL as well.

Yeah, both Catholic and GP.

great. you know, I just actually didn’t know that that was sort of the, the sell on Caltech.

If I’m a top professor, is that I get to come And kind of

be run my own show at Caltech more.

Yeah, I think it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s a big, big part of it. Um, and then, you know, Caltech is very, very. Uh, on who they hire. And sometimes the position may be open for five years before they find the exactly perfect person for what they’re looking for. The area of technology, science, engineering, they, they want to pursue.

Yeah. Um, so tell me more about kind of the vision here for building out the ecosystem.

So, you know, it’s been a pretty methodical, one thing after the other, over the. 10 years since we did the first, the Rothberg innovation initiative, this, you know, internal funding for technologies to de-risk them. Then the EIR program to help, uh, really position these companies, to put them in better place, uh, for investment.

And then the venture fund to give them their first half a million million dollars. To go out and hire people and build a team. Uh, and, and now we’re looking at the, at the piece, which is, uh, incubation and space, um, on campus or near campus where companies can go and still be close because, you know, faculty and student faculty don’t generally

leave to.

To do a company they’re, they’re allowed to do

one day a week of consulting. Uh,

they may go for a year and then

come back. Uh,

but at the proximity


Cal tech, uh,

is important in, in the first

couple years of the of comp company formation, uh, because a, our

discussions and the techno technical level happened

between the company, the, faculty, researchers, et cetera. So, um, and then.

We just, uh, opened, uh,

the space for, for that, um, In December. And we have our first

company in there, and the idea is to

create the excitement around startups

in, in a location that’s, you know, in one place

so that, you know, 5, 6, 7 startups can be in the same place. And, and then, uh, build on that, on that excitement, um, and incubate them

for a few years before they go out and hopefully then stay in Pasadena, um, rather than leave for the bay area or Boston or other area.

Um, are there, uh, startups you wanna point to that have come out of Cal tech? What’s the, Uh,

sort of the hype on yeah. What are some of the exciting ones,

 Well, you know, in the history we have some hugely impactful technologies that came on Cal tech and created whole industries and all that. And just to name a couple, uh, the DNA sequencer instrument, automated sequencer was, uh, a big deal that. Obviously change, it change a lot of the, the way we look at

medicine, uh, enabled the human genome project, all these things. Uh, and so that, that was big impact. Uh, the seamless image sensor, the basically the chip that takes the picture on your phone came out of JPL admission to Saturn, uh, and

that’s in every cell phone and every device and, um, So that’s another one. Uh, more

recently we have things in, you know, gene therapy delivery to the

brain, which is, you know, going through the

blood brain barriers difficult.

And we have companies that are


in LA now, um, got large amount of funding to, to do that. Uh, we have, uh, drawing companies that, um,

uh, for. Heavy lift drones for

package deliveries eventually, or, you know, uh, all kinds of applications of drones. Uh, we’re looking at quantum computing, um, technologies,

what is the state of the world in quantum computing? Like what has, what works? What, you know, where are we?

Uh, we are at the early stages with a lot of hype and excitement, and, uh, people are pursuing different ways of

doing quantum computing what, um, model is gonna work and,

and, but lots of money going to it


super high

valuations, but sometimes not a lot.

And, you know, typical of

early stage, uh, super

exciting, but probably long term. So some people will make a lot of money out of quantum computers and some, uh, will lose a lot of money.

It’s a good summary of my, my job, my life. Um, uh, okay. Fred BI a little to you. So if you were, you know, entering Cal. Today as an undergrad, what field of research? Where would you go?

At these days, the

the undergrads, uh, half of them do computer science. Uh,

and so that’s where it seems to be a lot of the interest. Uh, well, you know, my personal, uh, Certainly quantum would be, uh, an

interesting place because I was more on the physics engineering side than the, the bio side. But, uh, looking at neuroscience, uh, we have a new building,

uh, and beautiful building at the corner of Delmar and Wilson and actually.

You’ve seen it, but, uh, it’s, uh, building for neuroscience research and, um, it, it, it’s very

multi multidisciplinary. And I think one of the big things that, you? know, questions of science and is the brain understanding how the brain works. Um, and so a lot of great work will. Done there that combines engineers, biologists, chemists,

uh, people from the humanities, psychologists, you know, all kinds of, uh, different fields coming together.

Um, so I find that very exciting and, um, and then all the robotics,

Yeah, the neuroscience and understanding the brain is so cool. Um, Fred what else what else do we need to cover here?

yeah, no, uh, I just wanna add more and more saying that’s also getting huge attention at Cal tech sustainability, obviously and have a, a big center for that and big plans for, to continue doing that.

Yeah, no, I think it, the the question still is, you know, how do we all plug in and get to know the work better? Because I think Caltech still

remains sort of

this exciting, uh, impressive, but a little mysterious sort of place that if people don’t know how to approach


Yeah, and I it’s true, but I think there’s

a much more of a desire. It’s been the Cal tech kind

of culture


be, uh, under the radar

and, you know, understated, uh,

humble and do what we do best, which is doing research and. Pushing the boundaries of knowledge. Uh, but I’ve noticed also then in the last few years with new new

centers, more focused on translational science, uh, and more of a desire to tell our story and tell

what impact we’ve had in the world, because I think it’s good for

everyone to know and be more in the community.

So. It’s been an effort that will

continue. And I think, um, 10 years from now, I think people would be much more familiar with Cal tech does and, and its impact.

Yeah. that’s great. Uh, I didn’t even know. Translational means essentially getting out of the lab into, to the real world. Is that what it means?

Yeah, it’s a word that’s

been used. Um, you know, it become trendy and then go out of fashion. But, uh, it means that it’s not no longer fundamental, but we’re trying to figure out ways to, um, some ideas that came out of fundamental research that can we make them practical, uh, you know, applied to real problems,

Yeah. I mean, that’s the thing that has always amazed me about Caltech is like in my world as a product manager, we always just, what does the user want? What does the, what does the customer want all day


And I mean, some of the

beauty of the, the work that that Caltech does

is you don’t have to worry about customers at all for a lot of the


well, we have to worry

about one customer, the us government, because a lot of the funding comes from the us government,

Uh, but it’s true that the philosophy is a lot of the research is done is what we call cur curiosity driven research. It’s like, okay, it’s an interesting problem to look at. And well, we don’t see any application right now, but who cares?

It’s really something we need to understand at the fundamental level. And then once you go through that, there’s two things happen. One is that to be able to really understand their

problem. Oftentimes you have to develop instruments and to look at these things. And Fineman used to say to really understand something, you have to look at the thing, whether it’s, you know, better microscopes or instruments, that sense different things or, uh, sequencing or,

whatever it is.

Uh, so there’s a lot of technologies coming out. Doing fundamental research because of what we need to build to, to get there. Uh, and then when some of the breakthroughs happen,

then, Uh, you know, a lot of things can happen like

discovery of the Tron. And then a few years later, well, decades later, it leads to the, the, the pet imaging device, uh, you know, that is used in medicine every day.

So, you know, you don’t know where it’s gonna go, but, uh, you know, history is shown that fundamental research really. Is the basis for breakthroughs and, and moving things forward, um, in a big way.

Yeah. Uh, I love that concept. Research, um, too bad. Sometimes I, I sometimes feel bad that the startups in my world don’t

get to do more of that



Um, sometimes it feels a little too

VC driven. Um, well, I am really excited to see more startups,

Uh, based on breakthrough science

and, Um,

really excited for the work that you’re


Thank you.

I didn’t really get into you And what you’re like,


Give me the quick version. Just gimme a tiny bit.

Like where did you grow up? What are the lessons from your

youth that you

take with you.

Um, I was born in Corsica, uh, an island in the south of France. Uh, my father was a professional soccer player and, uh, my family was, uh, ran a hotel that was a family owned hotel. So I grew up in, in a hotel, in an apartment in a hotel, uh, that was seasonal only.

So I was only busy in the

summer, um, at smaller town.

And then, uh, you know, I

was interested in science and engineering

ended up in engineering school. Uh, I was also playing a lot of tennis because I didn’t wanna do the same as

my dad. So. Picking out the supports I was competitive and all that. And, and, but my mom convinced me that, you know, in an athletic career was probably not a good idea because she was married to an athlete and she knew all the things that ideal for.

And so she pushed me to just, um, Continue, uh, school. And so I’m in engineering school

came to Cal Cal type pro grad school.

Got my

master’s worked at JPL and then, uh, in fascinating area having to do with a GPS,

um, Research applied to tectonics And then I decided I need to grow up a little bit and got

into the field of, uh, intellectual property. Went to a law firm for a couple years, became a patent agent.

And that’s when a former classmate from Cal tech called me and said, Hey, they want, uh,

someone with a w background and patent experience. um, and I’m like tech friends. I never heard of it with the heck is that, uh, and I was on my way to probably law school and pat Tony career. And when I came

and talked to. The founder of the office, Larry

Gilbert, and also ritual who was, uh, instrumental in the early days. Um, they’re like, this is the ideal job. Please hire me. and uh, anyway, my first interview was talking to Larry.

I probably said

three words. He talked the whole time, the whole hour

and last interview I’ve ever had. Anyway, that was 20 years ago.

Amazing. Yeah, you’ve got so much good history here. yeah, no, I mean, thank you for sharing. I you’ve grown. You’ve done so much for Caltech incapacity and it’s great.

Well, you know, it’s been obviously

teamwork, but,

uh, being in one place for a long time, I.

Is has some benefits

that you can plan the long game

and, and be patient when things are not really going, but now it’s really exploding

and, and, and full support from the administration and the, you

know, faculty, all that.

So it’s really exciting, exciting, very exciting time at Caltech for this kind of transition

into a more tech research ecosystem around Cal tech.

Well, having these funds that where you can write million dollar checks is, is a huge deal.

Yeah. Yeah.

great. Congratulations.


Okay. Thanks, Brad.

All right. Take care.