Former Martek executives form advisory firm SDA Ventures


Steve Dubin, left, and David Abramson, principals in SDA Ventures in Columbia, first met in junior high in Silver Spring. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)
August 12, 2012

Steve Dubin left Martek Biosciences last November, nearly a year after selling the Columbia firm for $1.1 billion to Royal DSM, but you might not know it from looking at his schedule last Wednesday. The former chief executive spent his entire day with the company, though now his title is consultant.

Dubin and former Martek President David Abramson created SDA Ventures shortly after their departure from the nutrition firm to advise Royal DSM and other companies in the sector on everything from strategic partnerships to acquisitions to branding tactics.

“We’re kind of in a unique position because we’re former managers, understand the business, have lots of relationships ... but we also both have legal backgrounds and we’re able to approach something with half an eye on the business and half an eye on legal,” Abramson said.

The pair is letting the advisory business build on its own, fielding phone calls from prospective clients around the country and accepting whatever requests they have the time and expertise to fulfill. They haven’t even set up a Web site yet.

SDA Ventures is a very lean operation to date. The pair shares office space with another advisory firm and will add its first two employees — both plucked from Martek — in the coming weeks.

It’s a deliberate departure from their days at Martek when they gradually built the life sciences firm into a big business under the sometimes-hawkish eye of Wall Street analysts and a board of directors.

“We want a job where the phone doesn’t ring at 3 o’clock in the morning with a problem,” Dubin said.

Beyond Royal DSM, the pair have worked with a law firm to negotiate a licensing and patent agreement between two life sciences firms, a New York private equity shop called Payment Partners and a Johns Hopkins neurologist with a brain health venture.

Abramson said they’ll only get involved with projects that can prove a strong scientific foundation, something that’s not guaranteed in the marketing-heavy and hype-prone nutrition industry.

“In the nutritional space, there’s some great companies and some great products, and there’s some companies out there with products that we would not be comfortable with because the science is not strong,” Abramson said.

“It’s not going to be sustainable even if you can make a quick buck on it.”

Dubin and Abramson have taken a special interest in cognition and brain wellness, an area they said appears poised to grow as concerns about memory loss and the onset of Alzheimer’s increase as the population ages.

“At our age, we care more than we did before,” Dubin said with a laugh.

The business partners have grown to be good friends over the years, and conversations quickly dissolve into chuckles.

They first met at now-defunct Montgomery Hills Junior High School in Silver Spring, but fell out of touch for years until Dubin spotted Abramson from across the field at a children’s sporting event.

“At that age, I don’t think I expected I would be in business, period,” let alone with Abramson, Dubin said of their junior high days.

This time, Abramson delivers the zinger: “We probably thought we would be either retired or dead by now.”

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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