Technology Trends: An Interview with Will Lutz from NJII

Will Lutz. (NJIT)

Merck, the Rahway-based pharmaceutical company, and the New Jersey Innovation Institute, a division of the New Jersey Institute of Technology based in Newark, have announced that they will collaborate on a 10-month acceleration program.

The program, called Merck Digital Sciences Studio, is a hands-on accelerator that provides mentorship, training, support, community and investment in digital health and biotechnology startups. It will take place in New Jersey at the emerging incubator NJIT and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a location to be announced. There are six websites available for startups in each location. spoke to Will Lutz, General Manager of Entrepreneurship, Marketing and Enterprise Development at NJII, whose team implements MDSS. He explained in detail what will happen by the time MDSS begins.

Esther Sorden: How did you meet NJII and Merck?

Will Lutz: Simon Nynens, CEO of NJII, had a personal connection at Merck’s Global Health Innovation Fund, Merck’s private venture capital arm. David Rubin (the managing director and co-founder of the GHI Fund) reached out to Simon and said that Merck was considering an accelerator. They will train start-up companies and also put capital into very early stage companies. Simon told him that coaching, mentoring, and supporting startups is what we do at VentureLink@NJIT and NJII, and asked him to come and check it out. And they did.

They came and we gave them a tour and we talked about what they think and what we think. We also told them about some of our initiatives. Biopharmaceuticals are a major economic driver in the state; They are an important part of our state’s economy. We started talking to them about that, what we can do and what they can do.

Long and short is that I ran a small accelerator called BioFoundry that was funded by a grant from the US EDA. The grant was completed last December, around the same time we reached out to Merck. We have learned a lot. We knew how to run the program they wanted and support startups, but we didn’t have the money to invest it. They had money to invest. We gathered our strength and worked together. Therefore, the programming and training we developed for BioFoundry will be used at Merck Digital Sciences Studio.

ES: I realize there will be two locations, one in Newark at VentureLink and one in Cambridge. Can you tell us about that?

WL: As at the NJII site, the person who runs the Cambridge accelerator will be an employee of the NJII. We deal with recruitment, operations and programming. It all goes through us. The only exception is that every location will have a CEO in residence. It makes sense for Merck to deal with that.

We agreed that having the accelerator in both places is important. And that was part of the discussion with Merck when we first met. Boston has a strong biotechnology ecosystem. It is different from New Jersey. We are more widespread. They are more physically focused. They are approaching from different fields and different industries in both.

“We want all of our comers to come forward. The important thing in accepting them will be if we think we can move the needle for these startups.”

We wanted to have the two fugues, but there is no friction between them. Both have their origins. Therefore, we decided to split some programs. Cambridge AI (Artificial Intelligence) website has become to focus on drug discovery. There is much more activity in AI for drug discovery there than here. Here, we believe that biotech startups and supply chain startups are more prevalent. We ended up with two different sites with their own vertical focus. We will be looking for mentors who are suitable for companies in their various sectors. We think this will give us some critical mass that will make the cohorts more valuable.

ES: When will the first groups start?

WL: We want the start date of October 1st. And since this is the first group, I’m sure we’ll be a little flexible when we wet our feet. But we are targeting October 1st to start the first group.

We expect to host six companies in Newark and six companies in Cambridge.

ES: When I think of biotechnology, I usually don’t imagine digital technologies being part of it. Could you explain?

WL: One of the reasons Merck spoke to NJIT was because they wanted to pick up technology that was just coming out of universities. We want Princeton, Rutgers, Stevens and the New Jersey Institute of Technology to look at the technologies that are being commercialized as soon as possible, so we can see if we can support and grow them. So, yes, we are very focused on digital technology and software primarily.

ES: You say MDSS “strives to be a pump, not a filter”. what do you mean by that?

WL: We are open to everyone. In New Jersey, for example, we think we’ll see companies focusing on biotech supply chains, biomanufacturing, and electronic clinical issues. And maybe we’ll see a lot of AI-focused drug discovery companies in Cambridge. However, if we think we can help and make a difference with a company, if it’s somewhere in the digital health or digital or biotech field, we’ll probably accept it.

The most important part is that the institutional partners who create this accelerator want to do business with the companies. Merck wants to do pilots with these companies. McKesson wants to support companies and see what assets they can bring to the table. Microsoft wants to be very active in supporting these companies with their digital health offerings. And that may be more important than any particular industry term we put on a website. We want to help these companies market.

We want everyone who comes to come forward. The important thing about accepting it is whether we think we can move the needle for these startups.

ES: What about financing startups?

WL: Each company will receive $150,000 in safe form (Simplified Shares Future Agreement). There is no provision for equity other than SAFE. We didn’t want to get into negotiations about how much to value each company.

The company’s partners, Northpond Ventures (based in Cambridge) and McKesson Ventures (based in San Francisco), Merck and Microsoft, which provide support to startups, hope to make more investments in companies after they graduate from MDSS, when they are ready to raise the next round. However, we cannot guarantee the investment as it depends on the company and where it is located. Graduation will be accompanied by some kind of demo day or show event.

ES: Is there anything else you want your readers to know about MDSS?

WL: I just want to repeat something I said before. I’ve been on the other side of the table and I know how hard it is when someone says “no”. But as an accelerator, sometimes you say no to big companies, not because they’re not good companies or they’re not good investments, but because we don’t think we can help them. We don’t want to be just a checkbook. This is not what we are in this to do. The money is great. you need money; This is part of what this is. It is a good money to invest in an early stage for an accelerator. But this is a lot more about supporting startups and figuring out what we can do for them.

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You can reach the New Jersey Institute of Innovation at: or call 973-642-4055.

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