In the Hunt: Beyond Depression, an Explosion of New Ideas

Cites consultant Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on New York Times

Betsy Alberty has entrepreneurial drive in her DNA. But she also has something else that has forced her to dig deep into her innovator’s bag of tricks: a predisposition to paralyzing depression.

Ms. Alberty, who is 52, was a bit of a late bloomer as an entrepreneur, holding research and marketing jobs for a string of biotechnology companies before starting a consulting firm in 1990 and, four years later, a biotechnology marketing and sales company.

The crash came in March 2001, set off by two events: the loss of two major clients and the evaporation of hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid fees and commissions, in a deal that fell apart.

“That threw me into a tailspin,” she said. She had fought depression a few years earlier, but this one, she said, knocked her out of commission for 15 months.

It started off with severe cramps. Before long, she was struggling to get through the day. “For a few months, I could neither laugh nor cry,” she said. “On some days, I didn’t have the motivation to brush my teeth. I split up with my boyfriend. I gained 70 pounds. There was no self to preserve, only dread of the anguish never ending. I went days without sleep, to the point where I was hallucinating. I realized it was change, or die.”

A psychiatrist put her on an antidepressant, “the magic bullet,” she said. That, combined with therapy, exercise and a better diet, started her on the road to recovery. “It was gradual,” she said. “I crawled out of my hole.”

In December 2002, she landed a job with an executive recruiting firm, and was soon chafing at the constraints of reporting to a boss. “I’m not the kind of person who can work at a desk in a cubicle under fluorescent lights near windows that don’t open,” she said.

She said she was also not the sort of person who was willing to make do with 45 percent of her fee rather than 100 percent. In May 2004, she started BioEquities Recruiting.

Two years later, she got a break that she thinks could help revolutionize the dietary habits of Americans. At a conference for the medical diagnostics industry, she said, she met the co-inventor of a technology that can quickly and inexpensively measure omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in serum or plasma, a process that normally takes 2 ½ days.

Maintaining a proper balance of those two fatty acids is crucial in the treatment of disorders ranging from diabetes and heart disease to Alzheimer’s and, yes, depression. A quick and inexpensive test would, she thought, have huge market potential.

Luckily for her, one of the symptoms of depression, a desire to escape the world, had lingered. “I get saturated quickly at these events and want to go hide,” she said. But when she saw a man “standing to one side of a room, by himself, sipping coffee,” she went up to him. He told her about his technology and asked, ‘Do you want to see my abstract?’ “

She read it during the next session, and was immediately excited. “I have a good gut feeling for what will be a successful product,” she said. “I’ve ushered enough of them to market. I knew this had huge potential.”

Within weeks, she started a second company, LipidX Technologies in Mill Valley, Calif., to develop the product. She said she has worked out arrangements to pay the man she met at the conference, Neil Purdie, the head of the chemistry department at Oklahoma State University, and his co-inventor.

At first, financers were lukewarm to her pitch. Then Ms. Alberty heard a commercial on her car radio for Smart Balance that promoted the omega-3 supplements in its butter, mayonnaise, eggs and other products.

“I said to myself, ‘We can test omega-3 in food as well as people,'” she recalled. “We broadened our pitch, because omega-3 is in everything.”

For now, she is focusing on using LipidX’s technology to develop faster and better tests of fatty acids in foods and in people at risk of heart attacks, especially for pregnant women and infants. But, she said, “the applications are everywhere, and the partnership, licensing and spin-off possibilities are endless.”

Investors are starting to show interest in her company, she said, and she hopes to raise up to $1.5 million this year to acquire enough data to go into clinical studies.

She said she made the transition from despairing recluse to enthusiastic promoter by drawing on all the reserves of her entrepreneurial personality, notably her determination to control her destiny, her stubbornness and her fearlessness, as when she left a company without a safety net.

“I was taking an entrepreneurial approach to depression,” she said. “Nothing stops me. At times I lost my motivation, but I had built my support system and fell back at that.”

That is true to form, says Kerry Sulkowicz, founder of the Boswell Group LLC, a New York consulting firm, who has agreed to comment on the ways entrepreneurs in this three-column series face up to personal adversity.

Despite their reputation as indefatigable optimists, he said, entrepreneurs are just as susceptible to bouts of severe melancholy as the general population – and maybe more so. “All of them are very emotionally vulnerable people,” he said, and many are probably borderline bipolar.

What sets them apart is the alacrity with which they act, once they begin pulling themselves out of their rut. “It is because they are action-oriented, especially when the action is directed at a problem they want to solve,” he said. “In Betsy’s case, once she emerged from her crippling depression, she drew upon her entrepreneurial skills to prevent a relapse.”

Just as entrepreneurs, in general, view setbacks as opportunities rather than failures, Ms. Alberty said she views her struggle with despondency as a passage to success. “My depression led me to investigate the nutritional possibilities of this technology, to see how it might address the underlying causes of depression,” she said. “Otherwise, I might have just glanced at this guy’s abstract and done nothing.”