Howard Urnovitz isn’t your typical CEO. He quotes baseball icon Yogi Berra with ease and chuckles while reciting memorable lines from the movie, The Big Lebowski. Don’t expect an apology in this part of Big Ten country when he boasts that he was programmed in utero to respond every time the University of Michigan’s fight song plays.
“My mother was in Michigan Stadium when she was pregnant with me,” Urnovitz said. “She had one last goodbye, then she knew her life would be over by giving birth to me.”
All joking aside, this maize-and-blue-loving dude has also developed what he calls the most wonderful blood test on planet Earth.
Urnovitz, CEO of FBB Biomed, is the recipient of the Iowa Innovator of the Year Award presented by the University of Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (Iowa JPEC). He will be recognized at the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Awards event Oct. 20, his 70th birthday.
“What this award means to me is kind of a way for me to say to the world: Dear entrepreneur colleagues, make sure your innovation can make it through the mom test and somebody will buy it,” Urnovitz said. “Ask your customers, not your mom, if this is really something they will buy. That’s what I learned in JPEC and that is what I will cherish.”
Urnovitz earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees from the University of Michigan, hence his fascination with anything concerning the Wolverines. In the summer of 1981, he followed Dr. Richard Lynch to the University of Iowa as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Pathology. Soon Urnovitz was making the first medical antibodies in the United States.
That led Urnovitz to a job in San Francisco. Although he called the experience at a bio-technology company “a stain on my resume,” it was in the Bay Area where he channeled his inner Berra and observed a lot by just watching.
“There it was — AIDS — an epidemic of human cancer,” Urnovitz said. “That is when I jumped ship and built the first 10-minute test kit for AIDS for a startup company. That’s when I was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.”
Prior to FBB Biomed, Urnovitz founded two companies with varying degrees of success.
“But I never learned how to be an entrepreneur,” Urnovitz said. “(Regional director, University of Iowa Small Business Development Center) Paul Heath at the BioVenture Center basically said, ‘Kid, you have to go back to school.’ I said, back to school? I have never gone to school in business. He introduced me to JPEC and I got to meet John Pappajohn himself, which was a major treat and inspiration.”
Thanks to Iowa JPEC, for the first time, Urnovitz asked customers what they wanted instead of telling them what he thought they wanted.
“That’s what I learned from JPEC,” he said. “The customers were telling me to build something to replace the spinal tap.”
FBB Biomed provides a blood test to replace the painful spinal tap procedure. The test is able to diagnose multiple diseases with 100% accuracy in the early trials.
Urnovitz said that without Iowa JPEC, he would be a medium to moderately-respected entrepreneur. Now he feels on top of the world because after fighting the system for 50 years, his test for diseases proves that viruses are embedded in everyone’s genomes.
“My Lewbowski rug moment was called artificial intelligence and machine learning,” Urnovitz said. “We will now appreciate that these diseases are not viruses that go from people to people, they are viruses that jump from chromosome to chromosome inside all of our cells. To me, an innovator is the first to get results to match the hypothesis. If successful, then you were innovative.”
His Dudeness, Howard Urnovitz, does indeed abide.
|iowa innovator OF THE YEAR|
|2023||Howard Urnovitz||FBB Biomed|
|2022||John Prineas/Fatima Toor||Firefly Photonics|
|2021||Michael Schultz/Frances Johnson/Heyward Coleman||Viewpoint Molecular Targeting|