Michaele Armstrong: Bridging Bioscience Innovation and Impact

Michaele Armstrong | Co-founder and Associate Director | SP3NW
Michaele Armstrong | Co-founder and Associate Director | SP3NW

The vibrant bioscience landscape of the Northwest is a thriving ecosystem nurtured by the insightful contributions of Michaele Armstrong. This Co-founder and Associate Director of SP3NW is the architect of growth in this dynamic realm. With a passion for cultivating the potential of life science startups, she actively shapes the bioscience landscape through innovative ecosystem development.

Michaele is a small business owner, seasoned entrepreneur advisor, and advocate for the bioscience community. She is a driving force behind a groundbreaking life science business incubator. Additionally, as a founding partner of a life science innovation cluster, her influence ripples across the industry.

However, Michaele’s journey is not confined to executive functions. With 15 years of hands-on experience in bench and clinical oncology research, she brings a profound understanding of the field. Her extensive research portfolio, boasting 30+ peer-reviewed publications, stands as an example of her commitment to advancing bioscience.

Let’s delve into Michaele’s narrative—one of growth, innovation and a relentless pursuit of improved health through bioscience excellence!

You have an extensive background in both bench and clinical oncology research. How has your hands-on experience in research influenced your approach to fostering growth in the bioscience industry, particularly with startups?

I leverage my research experiences from the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC, emphasizing the significance of data-backed, application-oriented solutions. Recognizing the iterative nature of progress, I apply the scientific method—forming hypotheses, testing assumptions and modifying strategies based on outcomes. This approach isn’t limited to science; it extends to business formation, product development, customer discovery, market analysis, and financial forecasting.

In the bioscience sector, merging scientific rigor with practical business acumen is essential. My background in basic science and pre-clinical research revealed the critical balance needed in translating bioscience innovation into practice. Managing timelines, forming strategic partnerships, ensuring reproducibility, addressing adverse events, navigating model variations, understanding regulatory constraints, and managing costs/funding are challenges that must align with desired outcomes. Fostering an innovative culture while appreciating commercialization practicalities is pivotal for successfully transitioning bioscience discoveries from the lab to the clinic and into practical application.

Establishing relationships between academia and industry is crucial in bioscience. How do you navigate the complexities of these partnerships, ensuring both parties benefit and innovative technologies are effectively commercialized?

Effective industry-academic partnerships are pivotal for product development and workforce skill enhancement. Maximizing the benefits for both sides requires acknowledging the unique capabilities and limitations of each organization.

Recognizing the disparities in timelines, often stemming from funding and regulatory differences, is crucial. While academic experts aim for the societal impact of their technologies, their incentives may not align with commercialization. To bridge this gap, clear communication, mutual understanding of goals and internal processes along with synchronized timelines become paramount.

The key lies in aligning interests and establishing facilitated pathways for the smooth transition of innovative technologies from research labs to commercial applications. This may involve retaining the technical expert’s involvement through advisory roles or sponsored research, ensuring a cohesive and supportive partnership between academia and industry.

In your role, you’ve co-founded a life science business incubator and an innovation cluster. What guiding principles do you believe are essential for creating a nurturing environment for startups to thrive, both from a business and a scientific perspective?

Dr. Glenn Prestwich and I launched SP3NW, Washington State University’s business incubator in December 2020. After securing an EDA SPRINT grant to expand the incubator capabilities and grow the network, I was pleased to partner with Katrina Rogers and Stacia Rasmussen in developing and serving as an inaugural board member for the Evergreen Bioscience Innovation Cluster.

The guiding principles for creating a nurturing environment revolve around fostering innovation, collaboration and a supportive culture. In places like eastern Washington, these collaborative partnerships are frequent and productive because of the trust relationships and ecosystem mindset.

The ecosystem of industry, academic, economic development, investor, and entrepreneurial partners provides resources that address scientific and business needs. Encouraging an entrepreneurial spirit, promoting interdisciplinary collaboration and maintaining a focus on long-term sustainability are the pillars of our incubator, innovation cluster and ecosystem.

SP3NW supports the launch of businesses by providing various resources. What unique strategies have you employed to ensure these resources are tailored to the specific needs of bioscience startups, considering the intricate nature of the industry?

In navigating the complexities of the bioscience industry, we’ve tailored support strategies for enhanced clarity. Our distinctive paid Executive Advisor program aligns an experienced startup executive, well-versed in fundraising and successful exits with a current incubator startup founder. This 5-month collaboration acknowledges the founder’s skill gaps without requiring early equity relinquishment ensuring a dedicated and vetted advisor.

Additionally, our Student Consultant program pairs a 1099 consultant with startups for a specific 3-month project. Offering personalized mentorship, industry workshops, curated referrals, and access to WSU’s specialized research facilities, our incubator provides comprehensive support for life science startups. Evolving from a life science focus to an industry-agnostic and membership-based approach, SP3NW tailors resources to address each startup’s distinct challenges fostering a solid foundation for success in the specialized bioscience field.

Being involved in technology transfer and commercialization, what challenges do you often encounter in bridging the gap between scientific innovation and commercial viability? How do you overcome these challenges?

The challenges in bridging the gap between scientific innovation and commercial viability often involve accurately assessing the market, value proposition, aligning timelines, managing expectations, and mitigating risks.

Open communication, proactive collaboration and a phased approach to technology transfer are key. We navigate these challenges in cooperation with the university’s technology transfer office to optimize the commercialization process of university IP.

For faculty-driven startups, finding experienced business partners can be a challenge in aligning early-stage technologies with market viability—an aspect we’re consistently addressing.

Bioscience is a rapidly evolving field. How do you stay ahead of emerging trends and technologies, ensuring that the startups you work with are always at the forefront of innovation?

Thriving in the field of bioscience demands a commitment to continuous learning. This involves regular interactions with industry experts, active participation in conferences and fostering a culture of curiosity within our organization. We actively collaborate with our State Department of Commerce Export Representative. Our startup founders frequently embark on trade missions abroad, seeking knowledge about technological advancements.

Furthermore, we advocate for our startups’ attendance at pitch events to forge relationships, cultivate best practices and gain insights into innovative products and services. Our monthly CEO luncheons serve as a platform for peer mentoring allowing startups to absorb emerging trends and technologies strategically. Through a dynamic and forward-thinking approach, we ensure that the startups we support are well-equipped to harness the potential of emerging trends and technologies in the bioscience sector.

Communication is key in guiding startups. How do you effectively communicate complex scientific concepts to potential investors or partners, ensuring they grasp the potential impact of these innovations?

Effective communication of complex scientific concepts to investors or partners is a fusion of clarity, relatability and tangible vision. I’ve found that simplifying intricate scientific ideas without compromising accuracy is pivotal. I use clear language, complemented by visuals and relatable analogies illustrating the real-world implications of these innovations.

Each audience has its unique perspective so tailoring the message to resonate with their interests and objectives is essential. By emphasizing the societal benefits and commercial potential of these innovations, I aim to create a compelling narrative that bridges the gap between scientific depth and practical impact inspiring confidence and understanding among investors and partners.

As a leader, what approach do you take to mentor and guide your team, particularly in an industry that demands both scientific expertise and business acumen?

My leadership approach revolves around servant leadership principles, centered on nurturing the growth and well-being of my team. Open dialogue and providing avenues for skill enhancement are fundamental. I foster a collaborative culture that encourages interdisciplinary cooperation and continuous learning.

In an industry requiring a blend of scientific excellence and business astuteness, I recognize the importance of creating an environment where individuals can leverage their strengths while developing proficiency in complementary domains. By championing a supportive atmosphere, I aim to empower my team to bridge the gap between scientific prowess and business pragmatism, fostering a cohesive unit that excels in both realms.

Given your experience, what advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs in the bioscience industry, particularly those aiming to translate innovative ideas into successful and sustainable businesses?

The bioscience industry faces a high failure rate for startups, often due to common causes. For early-stage founders, understanding these pitfalls is crucial:

  • Funding Challenges: Lack of funds often indicates operational issues rather than solely financial scarcity.
  • Market Dynamics: Differentiating between the customer and user is vital in recognizing market relationships.
  • Advisory Support: Building a seasoned advisor network to fill skill gaps is pivotal embracing their feedback is essential.
  • Critical Points of Failure: Identifying and swiftly mitigating flaws in science, leadership, or cash strategies is vital.
  • Minimal Viable Product (MVP): Recognize your MVP and revenue avenues that sustain future development.
  • Resource Utilization: Utilize available resources such as trade associations, SBIR/STTR support and incubators/accelerators effectively. For instance, the Health Sciences and Services Authority (HSSA) in Spokane County offers substantial SBIR/STTR matching funds.

Success in bioscience entrepreneurship requires a blend of scientific excellence, business acumen, passion for impactful innovation, and at times, serendipity. Be resilient, remain grateful and strive for a positive impact.