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Serial Entrepreneur

Author: Richard Paul Hinkle
May, 2011 Issue


Biotech to baseball, websites to wine. Howard Leonhardt can’t stop inventing and innovating. Why should he?

 
Hey, it’s a natural for the North Bay, right? You take biotech, business innovation, mix in a little baseball and wine, and you come up with…what?

To find out, you have to start with a whirlwind of a fellow by the name of Howard J. Leonhardt, who’s something of an inventor, something of an instigator, something of a…well, he launches things, really. He’s a launch pad kind of guy. He gets things going, from new biotech ideas and a new way to set up your own business, to a new way of giving aspiring ballplayers a second chance, a new stage upon which to showcase their talents.

“We actually do call one of our projects ‘The Leonhardt Launchpad,’” he says with a satisfied grin. “We’re trying to be the incubator—the accelerator, if you will—to help new businesses get going with a little boost from my prior experience. The new company can be of any size, from your basic one-man-band to a business of sizeable proportions.”

Making use of space that’s otherwise unused at the University of Northern California (UNC—more on that later), Launchpad makes available, in a shared 50,000-square-foot space in the former Medtronic complex in southwest Santa Rosa virtually anything and everything a new business could want, from office space and conference rooms to coffee makers and copy machines. It also has a research and development lab and a state-of-the-art clean room. (Ask your science friend. Essentially, it’s for extremely precise biotech and biomed assays and experiments.)

“We take a holistic approach to guiding new business startups,” says Leonhardt. “We try to spend as much time nurturing the people as we do supporting their business models. It’s sort of a bootstrap model to get a new operation online quickly, teaching them how to raise capital—seed money is pretty important—and how to build their new business one customer at a time.

“We give them the startup tools and teach them how to share resources so they can create unprecedented cost savings. We see The Leonhardt Launchpad as something of an incubator, where new businesses can thrive because we have all the support systems—physical, institutional and social—already in place for them. That includes a website dedicated to helping these folks with not only their business goals, but their personal goals as well.

“While we’re set up most specifically for biotech startups, The Launchpad system can handle pretty much any business model. Say your business is fashion design: We have many online links that would hook you up with the fashion business, so you could network and get whatever mentoring you might need.

“The business model provides a kind of accountability, a set of reminders, to keep those who work alone on the most efficient line of their chosen path. It’s sort of like having a boss there to keep you on task. And, I might add, we practice and promote socially conscious capitalism. We believe you can do the best for your company by doing the best for your community.” (If you give him half a chance, Leonhardt will direct you to a whole slew of websites that support his system.)

Teaching newcomers how best to raise capital (GrowThink.com), how to do it in a socially conscious manner (JustAction.com) and how to avoid paying it all to the lawyers and accountants (a new website that’s currently under development) are high on Leonhardt’s list. “When we were doing our initial public offering for BioHeart, we raised a little more than $6 million, and a major portion of that—much more than half—went to the lawyers and accountants under the guise of ‘protecting the investors.’ That’s not right. That’s not even close to right. The investors were intending their money go to the pioneering—need I say ‘lifesaving’—work that we were proposing to do. Dang!”
 

Biomedical technology on a roll

On yet another in a whole slew of projects, Leonhardt is working with the Science and Technology Innovation Center (STIC) at Santa Rosa’s UNC. “The demand for medical technology is a field that’s growing rapidly, even in these recessionary times. Anything in the cardiac field is especially hot. That’s a specific area that we might well expect to double in the next five years.”

Founded in 1993, UNC is a small, private, graduate research institute that brings in a select group of top students from a worldwide pool of applicants whose focus is on biomedical engineering. “What we’re here to do is to help put good theories into practice,” says founding president Dr. Y. King Liu. “Our graduates are familiar with what needs to be done to produce biomedical engineering devices from conception to commercialization. Two companies have already spun off from the university to become functioning C-corporations. We have the space available, and it’s good to put it to use. We believe Santa Rosa can become a world-class base for scientific technology.”

Adds Dr. Liu, “Mr. Leonhardt was, for nine years, a member of the board for UNC, and he has many years of intimate experience in the biomedical engineering device industry. So our working together is a perfect fit.

"The bottom-line essence of the idea is to create local jobs and local revenues at a facility that’s approved by the Bureau of Private Postsecondary & Vocational Education, by the State of California, and by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to issue SEVIS I-20 forms to international students to apply for their student visas.” (Note that UNC isn’t affiliated with either the University of California or the California State University systems.)

Prior to hooking up with UNC, while working with Medtronic, Leonhardt invented the Talent Taheri-Leonhardt Stent Graft System (more on that later), which is integral in repairing life-threatening aortic aneurysms. Medtronic’s vascular division now owns this graft system, which has treated 180,000 patients to-date.
 

Minnesota born

A native of Minnesota, Leonhardt headed for Florida after finishing college (“took me three schools to get through”). “Minneapolis was a wonderful place to grow up, but the weather, well, you know. I’d watched ‘Flipper’ when I was a kid, and told my folks that when I grew up I was going to go live there. So, when I finished college [with a degree in international trade], I drove my wife and young son down to Miami in a beat-up old hatchback and, rather than spending $200 a night for a motel—and use up our savings in three nights—we lived out of the car in a campground until we got on our feet."

Asked about his own inspirations, Leonhardt points internationally and close to home. “I’ve always admired Richard Branson. He’s sort of a hero of mine, because he didn’t listen to all the people who told him he couldn’t run an airline because he didn’t know how to fly or fix a plane. His answer was that he knew what the customer experience was supposed to be and, by God, he could handle that problem—and do it better than others had. I see where his [Virgin Airlines] was voted the number one airline the other day. I felt so proud of him, for him! That, and I always admired my parents for their can-do capabilities. Mom cut my hair and my dad fixed his own car and built the deck on our house by himself. They could get things done.”

Leonhardt, who likes to call himself a “serial entrepreneur,” most definitely likes to have his hands in the pie from start to finish. In the mid-1980s, he founded a small trading company—WorldMed—that worked with small producers of cardiovascular medical devices, helping them reach markets worldwide. A few years later, he became directly involved in the manufacture and marketing of new devices for treating cardiovascular diseases. He holds more than 20 patents for his inventions, including cardiovascular balloon catheters, heart valves, electronic pacemakers, aortic stent grafts and stem cell treatment methods for heart failure.

Oh, lest I forget, there’s also a method for converting stem cells to heart muscle tissue.

“The idea is that you take stem cells from the thigh muscles of people who’ve had a heart attack,” he explains. “By means of an 18-step process, you grow strips of muscle that go over the scar tissue of the heart and become heart muscle tissue. They actually look like tendons on close examination. This strengthens the heart…and does it without drugs. That’s the key, because drug regimes can only sometimes increase the strength of the heart, whereas this method markedly, usually quite dramatically, strengthens the heart. The drugs simply can’t convert scar tissue to living muscle. And scar tissue doesn’t pump blood. There’s simply no comparison at all.”

After a dozen years, WorldMed—started with just two employees—had grown to about 500 employees. At that time, 1998, it was merged with another then-small company called Arterial Vascular Engineering, Inc. (AVE) of Santa Rosa. The new company grew to more than 2,000 employees before it was acquired by Medtronic in early 1999—for $4.3 billion. (That acquisition first brought Leonhardt to Sonoma County. He fell in love with the place almost instantaneously, buying a place out near Lake Sonoma a year later.)

Following that sale, Leonhardt founded, in Florida, Bioheart, Inc. (you’ll see it sometimes as BioHeart—the connection with “lion-heart”), which has since become the primary player in applying muscle stem cells to treat advanced heart disease and failure. Bioheart works closely with the top cardiac centers, from the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic to Duke University and Columbia University. “The company investigates stem cell therapies and produces a full range of products for treating heart failure,” says Leonhardt. “We raised more than $100 million from investors, and a third of that more in grants in a very short time.” Leonhardt resigned his position as CEO in August 2009, but remains on board as chief science and technology officer and as chairman of the scientific advisory board.

Above his myriad inventions and involvements, Leonhardt may be best known in medical circles for having been the primary inventor of the Taheri-Leonhardt (TALENT) stent graft. This system, which controls nearly three-quarters of the international market, is now extensively sold by Medtronic. The idea is, it allows for the repair of thoracic aortic aneurysms without surgery. Truly revolutionary—and how often do you get to say that without it being hyperbolic?
 

So many ventures

Leonhardt’s entrepreneurial side seems exhaustingly, deliriously delicious. He’s the primary owner of Lucille’s Cafes of America (American comfort food), owns half of that company’s flagship restaurant in Weston, Florida. Artists Café NYC is a moving book store, café, stage, art gallery and independent film house where poets, authors, musicians and actors can showcase their art. His Hayley Bear Fine Wine Brokers specializes in boutique Sonoma County wineries. Nicole Leonhardt Fashions uses interest in fashion to teach entrepreneurship and empowerment.

Leonhardt is a partner in Miami Beach’s Water Adventures (dolphin sight-seeing) and is the founder of Lionheart Adventures (which sponsors those who want to do charitable work on their vacations for those in need).

He also started Kindheart Lionheart Media and Publishing, a vast and growing company that focuses on inspirational books, movies and music: “‘kindheart’ stands for compassion, ‘lionheart’ stands for courage and economic growth,” he explains.

“I’ve always been taken in by motivational and inspirational stories,” he says. “You look at the stories of people like Walt Disney, Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison, and you can’t help but be uplifted. We’ve published their stories, and spiritual texts like The Prophet, Conversations with God, The Celestine Prophecy and The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari.

“We’re big into music as well, being the primary sponsor of the Portuguese artist Ana Free. She’s a wonderfully popular singer, and her fan support is growing rapidly as you can discover on YouTube.”

Leonhardt is also the author (“I’m just now in the middle of rewriting it to contain a bit more dialog”) of a soon-to-be-published book of inspiration called Dolphin Smiles: The Legend of Kindheart Lionheart. “We’re working with Darryl Kidder, who used to work with DreamWorks and was the story board head at Disney, to turn it into a film.”

There’s also the Entrepreneurship Party, determined to revive the world economy by promoting the financing of entrepreneurs. There’s no end to what a curious mind can come up with.
 

Wine Country Baseball, year two

Yes, this is another “launch” story. Leonhardt launched his two-county—both Sonoma and Napa counties have teams—Wine Country Baseball league in spring 2010. “There was really nothing out west like the Cape Cod League in New England, where you can bring together high school and college kids, along with those who’ve played in the bigs and are trying to play their way back. We see ourselves as a developmental league and put most of our profits back into the local communities. We’re already planning a college-only division for 2012; John Goelz, the head baseball coach at Sonoma State, is already working on that project.” Leonhardt adds that, rather than going to China—for about half the cost—he bought all the team uniforms right here in Sonoma County.)

Wine Country Baseball is a big deal here in Wine Country, and it’s also a proud sponsor of the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants.

“We signed on at the beginning of the year last year, and they treated us like royalty. We were there, meeting the players in the locker room just before the season opened, pouring our wine and chatting. The Giants’ pitching staff was great in that, with all the long at-bats, our sign was up behind home plate for some very long innings!”
 

And there’s wine, too!

In 2000, Leonhardt purchased a small farmhouse across the road from the Ferrari-Carano Vineyard on Dry Creek Road, just before you get to Lake Sonoma. Shortly after purchasing the old farm, he began planting what’s now 6.5 acres of vineland (mostly Zinfandel, with one acre of Petite Sirah, which fleshes out the wine and adds a bit of color and spiciness). “We’re in the northeast end of the valley,” he says, “a place that’s just perfect for Zinfandel. We have gravelly soils and get long hours of sunshine, because the fog dissipates hours earlier than further inland and the evenings are cool. It helps that our vineyard manager, Ulises Valdez, is so sharp. He’s the American dream story all by himself: A native of Michoacán, Mexico, he won the ‘Farmer of the Year’ award at the Harvest Fair a couple of years ago.”

Leonhardt Vineyards 2009 Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley Reserve is light raspberry with subtle hints of black pepper and sage, a medium body and nice balance. It would be good alongside a pastrami sandwich with, of course, a bit of horseradish. The winemaker is Michael Dashe, who has Dashe Cellars in Oakland, where the Leonhardt wines are produced. Leonhardt is thinking of building a winery facility at his vineyard, but currently assesses it would be a tad more capital-intensive than is warranted.

One must also note that Leonhardt—an inveterate donor to charities like the Dan Marino Foundation and Artists Against World Hunger—has even enticed the fetching actress Nikki Novak (“The Bucket List,” “Dexter”) to sign on as official winery spokesperson. Is there anything this guy can’t do?
 

Looking forward

As we go to press, Leonhardt says the Leonhardt Launchpad has six clients “in the sign-up process. We’re just waiting to resolve one client’s desire to have total access to the clean room. We’ll work it out.”

And the innovating just won’t stop: Coming soon are ebuycalifornia.com and ecaliforniastore.com, designed to help California companies successfully export their goods, and a smartphone app for students offering three-minute test prep videos (for last minute refreshers). He sees his new CalStockExchange.com as reforming the way business is done in an elemental way “by giving everyone, no matter how limited their means, fair access to being part of the stock exchange; those who know say that this reform has the potential of creating 23 million new jobs over the next decade!”
 

A contributing editor to Quarterly Review of Wines, Richard Paul Hinkle is the author of nine wine books, an active business writer and a huge baseball fan and player. You can see more of his work at www.RichardPaulHinkle.com.


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