Entrepreneurship wasn’t an obvious career path for Old Dominion University graduate and biotech industry veteran Jamie Grooms. However, it turned out to be something he had prepared for his whole life.
A self-described “Section 8 child,” Grooms grew up in public housing and made his way through ODU’s undergraduate biology program in the 1980s while also working at a laundromat and as a lifeguard. Grooms said those early experiences taught him the most basic startup skill: survival.
“Survival is entrepreneurship,” Grooms said. “Those early lessons that I was absorbing fit what I did when I got out of college.”
Grooms is now paying the university back for those experiences with a stake in his biotech startup RegenX Science, which is researching how a salamander’s skin could be used to help prevent scarring during the healing process in humans.
“When you have achieved something, you need to help other people,” Grooms said.
At the center of the research is the axolotl — a Mexican salamander about nine inches long with lidless eyes, gills, short stubby limbs and a fin. The amphibians have remarkable regenerative properties that humans lose right after birth, said RegenX CEO Beth Corson. Axolotls can regrow everything from their spines to parts of their brains.
“It’s the only animal in its full-grown state that remains embryonic,” Corson said.
RegenX leaders want to use those properties to help heal wounds more effectively and combat the aging process. Scientists at labs in Virginia Beach and Richmond will be studying gene expression, superficial wounds and skin discoloration after surgery, among other areas.
“It makes your body heal more effectively and accelerates the production of what you used to do,” Grooms said.
For example, Corson envisioned a stretch marks cream that uses the research to improve the healing process to hold off that type of scarring.
The company, which was founded in November 2016, has four employees and three scientific advisory board members. The startup is in the early financing stage, Grooms said, and has secured around $1.3 million in funding.
As a way to give back to the school that taught him how to survive, Grooms recently donated a 10% stake in RegenX to the ODU Education Foundation. All of the money raised from that stake will go right back into making ODU a welcoming place for innovators and entrepreneurs, said Nancy Grden, executive director of the Strome Entrepreneurial Center.
“Jamie Grooms is an amazing entrepreneur and adviser,” Grden said, noting that he also works directly with the organization mentoring future entrepreneurs.
Grooms said he sees a future for the biotech industry in Hampton Roads, but urged cities and academic institutions to do more to attract startups and help entrepreneurs. For example, he said several cities could band together and create a $25 million seed fund that is professionally managed, designate the funding for science startups and use it to attract and grow talent.
“It changes the entire culture and outlook,” Grooms said.
In late 2015, former Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms launched the VABeachBio initiative to develop an accelerator program and a 155-acre innovation park on Princess Anne Road. Almost five years later, the city’s development authority announced that the anchor tenantof the park’s first office building would be Ynot Italian, rather than a biosciences company.
Grooms has a long history of successful entrepreneurship, especially in the state of Florida. He founded the life sciences companies Regeneration Technologies and Axogen. He is also the founder and principal of the Synogen private equity fund.
A deal similar to the ODU-RegenX partnership has made around $80 million for the University of Florida, Grooms said.
“This is what a lot of universities are doing now,” he said. “They are participating like any other shareholder.”