A Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute alumni Josh Eckman recently received an Ernst & Young’s 2022 Entrepreneur of The Year award for its Mountain West region. Eckman is a co-founder and CEO of Carterra, a medical device company founded on University of Utah technology that helped develop COVID-19 therapies. We took the opportunity to catch up with Eckman to learn more about what he’s been doing since graduating with a master’s of mechanical engineering in 2007. While attending the University of Utah, Eckman participated in the Lassonde New Venture Development program, which matches graduate students with inventors and entrepreneurs to help them build a business.
What does the EY award mean to you?
Eckman: This is a team accomplishment – company and family. We have the pleasure at Carterra of working with fantastic people who are passionate about making the world a better place. Our company is enabling scientists around the world to develop life-saving medicines in a faster and more efficient way. We are honored to assist them in their important work. During COVID we participated pro-bono on a Gates Foundation-spearheaded initiative to identify therapies for COVID-19, and we provided the high-speed biophysical characterization for the global consortium. We also enabled our customers, Eli Lilly and Abcellera, to bring the first COVID-19 therapy to market in Q4 2020 (under Emergency Use Authorization), helping to save lives before vaccines would become available.
Why do you think you’re being honored as an exceptional entrepreneur?
Eckman: COVID work our team and customers have done.
What is Carterra?
Eckman: Carterra is a biotech-instrument company that is enabling breakthroughs in biotherapeutic drug discovery. Our proprietary technology enables months of work to be completed in days, dramatically shortening the time to develop life-saving medicines. Carterra’s LSA is in use by 17 of the 20 top pharma companies and has a broad user base including pharma, biotech, contract research organizations, and government and academic research labs. Our ultimate goal is to see the cost of biotherapeutics dramatically reduced, and their availability worldwide significantly expanded, by using technology to level the playing field between large pharma and smaller organizations – increased competition and better science for improved patient outcomes.
How did you start and grow Carterra?
Eckman: Carterra (formerly known as Wasatch Microfluidics) is a spin-out from the University of Utah Mechanical Engineering Department. Bruce Gale, Jim Smith, David Chang-Yen, and I co-founded the company in 2005. We wrote a business plan and participated in the 2005 Utah Entrepreneur Challenge, winning first place. We used those funds to start the company and license the technology. We then raised R&D funding through SBIR grants and from angel investors. After putting in place all the technology building blocks, we partnered with Pfizer, and they invested in us to build an automated instrument platform for pharmaceutical R&D of biotherapeutics. We used the outcomes of that collaboration to raise venture capital and scale the company.
How did you know you know your business idea was worth pursuing and could be successful?
Eckman: Our core technology was developed to solve an unmet need in a dynamic and growing market. The core technology provides 50x improvement in speed over existing platforms. I had previously worked in the Lassonde New Venture Development Center, researching the commercial potential of university technologies. We applied the same rigor to this effort, conducting market and primary research, and became convinced that this was a disruptive and scalable solution.
What do you think it takes to be successful with a biotech startup?
Eckman: Vision, disruptive solution, product-market fit, capital, great people, time, fortitude.
How would you describe the biotech industry in Utah? Is there something about the area that has helped your company?
Eckman: Still nascent but dynamic and growing. Early-stage funding can be limited for life science tools and diagnostics. We had to be persistent and resourceful in the early days, finding ways to move the company forward and demonstrate the product-market fit. By the time we could attract venture capital, we had significantly de-risked the technology and market and developed a capital-efficient model for scaling the business.
What made you want to be an entrepreneur?
Eckman: The thrill of the unknown. Bringing a vision to life. Doing something hard but meaningful.
How would you define an entrepreneur?
Eckman: Not satisfied with the status quo. Passion to make the world a better place.
What advice would you give to someone who was thinking about becoming an entrepreneur?
Find something you are passionate about that fulfills an unmet need in a strong market, develop a disruptive solution, surround yourself with fantastic people, put your head down, and work like crazy.
Do you have a favorite quote about entrepreneurship?
Eckman: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt (from “Man in the Arena” speech)
What more should we expect to see from your work as an entrepreneur? Where are you going now?
Eckman: Revolutionizing biologics (only scratching the surface), then other areas of drug discovery.