Jiang He is the type of person – shockingly numerous at a place like UVA – whose sheer list of accomplishments can make your head spin. A nano-medicine specialist, He has spent the past 17 years conducting pharmaceutical research here in the United States and, during that time, the PhD has worked in a number of fine institutions on a variety of important medical projects. He began his stateside research at UMASS, then spent six years at UCSF, and ultimately moved to Charlottesville in 2012. While he’s a chemist by trade, the MIND Pharmaceutical founder is no stranger to the world of entrepreneurship – several years back, he founded a startup with colleagues in Silicon Valley, which received funding in 2010, initially from the University of California and then from a number of other sources including Pfizer and, ultimately, a venture capital firm. There are many adages to tell us that even those who have accomplished great things must continue pushing themselves to seek growth through discomfort – “life begins at the end of your comfort zone” and its ilk – but for someone with as lengthy a resume (bridging both science and entrepreneurship) as He, one might wonder what could possibly still present him with a challenging new frontier. The answer surprised me: it’s skincare.
He is deep into the world of science in the way that most of us could only ever emulate via well-scripted television shows – his previous startup was focused on antibody-based immunotherapy, and his ultimate dream would be to develop products that treat diabetes-related eye disease. In other words, He is not the typical image you call to mind when you think about traditional cosmetic or skincare lines. That’s precisely why he’s doing it, though – he can provide a hyper-scientific anti-aging product to the eager masses, and in turn the skincare market can provide him with access to a lucrative consumer marketplace, which he ultimately hopes will help him fund the research projects he’s passionate about.
Jiang has been working on this particular idea since 2014 – inspired by a new discovery in his lab here in Virginia. The startup is focused on nanotechnology delivering active proteins to improve human conditions and health. Surprisingly, to everyone – He included – skincare technology is actually very similar. However, what sets his product apart is the fact that, while current skincare serums and creams on the market are temporary and don’t actually change skin cells, He is working to rejuvenate aging skin cells from the inside. While Jiang clearly has the scientific chops to get the job done, he’s been surprised by how much he’s needed to learn (and is still learning) about building a consumer-focused product. While the substance is still currently in the discovery stage, he’s already thinking ahead to the unique ways in which consumers might interact with the final product. “I won’t have the same amount of control over how customers store and use the product. A customer may leave it in a hot car and then come back and complain [if the product no longer works the same way]…I have to do more tests on temperature [than I’m used to].”
This mindset shift into a consumer-oriented space is a major reason that Jiang has chosen to spend his summer in the i.Lab working with fellow startups and benefitting from the strong network of mentors and advisors. “One mentor said that from their perspective the hardest part is marketing,” He says. For his first startup, He and his three co-founders – all professors who, Jiang says, “knew nothing” about the business world – had the benefit of working with a venture capital firm to hone their business messaging. “I still remember when we presented our idea, the funders said ‘I believe you on the technology, but you also have to know what the market looks like.” But for this new project, He has mostly had to go it alone, so he’s been grateful and enthusiastic about his summer residency at the i.Lab and the lessons and connections inherent within it. “It’s a fun process to translate your discovery into that system.”
While many of us tend to imagine a scientific researcher always adorned in white lab coat and goggles, He has a full life with his family outside of his “9 to 5.” When asked about his favorite aspects of life in Charlottesville after spending time in both the Northeast and the West Coast, he raves about Central Virginia’s “mountains, hiking, and Skyline Drive.” He loves that his three kids can “have snow, but not too much.” Fittingly, this strikes a similar chord to He’s business philosophy – his new product begins at the end of his comfort zone, but not too far away.