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How Did You Do That?
What does it take for an entrepreneur to go from an idea to a successful startup? Hosts Kathleen Gallagher and Tim Keane talk with Wisconsin entrepreneurs about how - and why - they've succeeded.Kathleen Gallagher is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the executive director of the Milwaukee Institute. Tim Keane is the director of Golden Angels Investors and an entrepreneur who led his own startup to a profitable acquisition.

How Jeff Aronin Began Building Life Sciences Companies And Never Stopped

Jeff Aronin grew up in Baltimore, Md. but moved to Illinois during high school. After graduating from Northern Illinois University, he got a sales and marketing job at Carter-Wallace Pharmaceuticals. During his time there, he was upset to see the company pull off the market a therapy for pediatric epilepsy that helped many families because a side effect was discovered.

It was then, while still in his 20s, that Aronin realized big pharmaceutical companies weren’t set up to develop drugs for small numbers of patients with rare conditions. Aronin went on to work in other jobs in the healthcare industry, including a stint at Medcare Technologies, a medical equipment maker where he learned about innovation.

Then, at age 29, he began focusing on the problem of developing drugs for small numbers of patients with rare conditions. Aronin stopped working for other people and holed up in his living room to launch Ovation Pharmaceuticals with $150 million of private equity funding.

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Image courtesy of Jeff Aronin
Jeff Aronin started his first life sciences company Ovation Pharmaceuticals at the age of 29 out of his living room. Today, he's developed and sold multiple companies and was a driving force behind Matter, Chicago's premier center for health technology startups.

"I got into the industry because I saw I could build a career but also help patients," says Aronin. "And when I realized that if products weren't large enough they weren't important to these big corporations, and I saw I had a unique ability to solve this problem and decided I wanted to focus on it."

He started Ovation in 2000, grew it to nearly 300 employees, and sold it to Denmark-based Lundbeck in 2009 for $900 million. Aronin shut down his next startup, Marathon Pharmaceuticals, in 2017 after selling its main drug to another company. But he's continued to operate Paragon Biosciences, which develops, accelerates and finances biotech companies. Chicago-based Paragon Biosciences has built seven innovative bio-based companies, investing more than $1 billion in them.

As a philanthropic endeavor, Aronin also was a driving force behind Matter, Chicago’s premier center for health technology startups that opened in 2015 and is housed in the Merchandise Mart next to the 1871 startup incubator.

"We needed to build that community to help these entrepreneurs build these companies ... and [help] them get that start, training them, giving them the resources," he notes.

With over 6,000 diseases currently known today without available treatments, Aronin believes that finding these challenges and solving them with science will be the driving factor to helping more patients.

"What we learned was because the industry is so complex and science is complex we do it in very targeted companies and focus on one big problem at a time," he explains. "We have the same resources as big corporations but we're very focused one company at a time. And that model is a model for the future of how you innovate science."

Jeff's Tips for Entrepreneurs

  • Start all companies by solving a big challenge. Ask yourself, why does the world need this company to survive? Remain focused on your mission and goal.
  • Learn all you possibly can in your area of interest.
  • Hire mission-oriented, talented people. Trust them to go execute and require that they take responsibility and accountability.
  • Never give up when faced with what appears to be an insurmountable challenge. 
  • Be accountable to your team and help them achieve their personal and professional goals. 
  • Keep your team and those whom you wish to serve through your work as your paramount focus.
  • There is never a good time to start a business. You do it when you have a great idea for a business or product that people are willing to pay for.
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