Inventing Millionaires

Silicon Alley Duo Turn Scientists Into Fat Cats

Jeff Wolf and Jeff Himawan are perhaps the two hardest guys to impress that an applied scientist might ever meet—if the applied scientist got so lucky.

"We've made a lot of scientists millionaires," boasts Wolf, the CEO of Seed-One Ventures, the official name of a small Silicon Alley firm known among its partners as "Jeff 'n' Jeff."

"I'm looking for the Big Bang, an eight on the Richter scale," he adds. "A technology that hits us the way Vesuvius hit Pompeii."

The 37-year-old Wolf is so demanding because he'll have to live with his choices, day and night, for the next two years. Seed-One doesn't just fund start-ups; it morphs into them. In a strategy that could spark a trend among venture capitalists, every year or so Wolf pours millions of dollars into the research of a single invention, and then does the dirty work of forming a company to bring that technology to consumers. Though he keeps a seat on the board, he steps aside to let others "who know what the hell they're doing" lead the fledgling enterprise while he goes on to hunt for the next bold stroke of science.


"One compound backed by Seed-One slashed viral infections in primates 1 million–fold, and holds promise for treating cancer and AIDS."


Seed-One sniffs out breathtaking innovations. Bananas that grow and impart immunizations to human diseases. Electronic ink that writes and rewrites text on what appears to be ordinary paper. Trees for logging that grow bigger, fatter, and with fewer leaves. Refrigerators that don't use freon and work without moving parts. Medicinal and decorative flowers that bloom on command. Fruit that ripens just in time for sale, not at nature's whim.

Each one a revolutionary idea; each one not revolutionary enough for Seed-One. The firm's scientific advisory board meetings can "get pretty heated, pretty emotional," Wolf says, because only one entry out of thousands survives. Jeff 'n' Jeff live on airplanes as they hit military and university laboratories around the world. While mega-corporations snooze, they, along with Seed-One's staff of six of Ph.D.s and M.D.s, furtively scour technical journals the way teenage boys paw through Dad's Playboycollection. Seed-One will back nothing but platform technologies—breakthroughs that could remake an entire industry. With the bananas, for example, "you're just changing how you administer the medication," Wolf argues. "The concept of a vaccine hasn't changed."

What have they come up with? The potential firestorms that Seed-One plans to unleash on the market are bizarre even for our wonder-saturated age: a company called EluSys Therapeutics that's developing a shot to clean the bloodstream of any pathogen—viruses, bacteria, toxins, rogue autoimmune responses—within two hours, and Sensatex, whose Smart Shirt will serve as a wearable motherboard and wireless link to the World Wide Web. Manufacturing partners could add to the washable T-shirt the ability to transmit your vital signs to a doctor far away, or to receive your e-mail.

"These are the gems," says Wolf, beaming. There have been heartbreaks. Seed-One lost out to a British firm for the Roslin Institute's cloning technology, made famous by Dolly the sheep. And some terrific ideas—a finger-prick test to replace amniocentesis and seedpods that produce fuel-grade oil—were left on the shelf because Wolf judged their chances of winning adequate patents too weak. With Seed-One backers—including presidential scion Neil P. Bush—expecting to reap returns of up to 20 times their investment over the course of three to five years, Wolf says, "we just can't risk millions of dollars, hundreds of millions, on something that we're not certain we can protect."

Some Seed-One investors say they've made blockbuster returns on private offerings of its projects. But a few straddle the fault line between their daily professional world and the futurism of Seed-One. "This is my favorite company in the whole world," says initial investor Michael Araiz, but "it's hard to get your arms around. It's almost embarrassing to talk about something that could be part of history. It makes for kind of goofy cocktail-party conversation. I've learned to bring it only to people who are serious and sophisticated enough."


It's easy to romanticize the two Jeffs, much as we have gilded the image of the brave adventurers Lewis and Clark. Seed-One is as motley a crew as that assembled by the 19th-century explorers: Wolf, the eldest of five siblings, rose from a childhood at times spent on welfare and following his father through odd jobs, including carnival work, to earn a Stanford M.B.A. and a law degree from New York University. CTO Himawan, a 35-year-old biochemistry Ph.D. trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, is an Indonesian of Tibetan heritage who immigrated to the States at age six. The team includes a Shiite Iranian refugee and a Harvard-trained corporate counsel who's also a Hasidic rabbi.

Seed-One's low profile adds to the mystique. The firm's Web site (www.seed-one.com) provides a telephone number and address, an e-mail link, and nothing more. You could easily miss Seed-One's second-floor headquarters on lower Broadway, between a Staples Office Supply and Canal Jeans.

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