Biotech and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: Balancing Two Halves of the Whole

by | Oct 17, 2022 | Issue 158, Issues | 0 comments

Some people turn hardships into fuel for moving forward and achieving extraordinary goals. Dr. Urban A. Kiernan, Ph.D., is one of those people who pushes through the confines of life's...

Some people turn hardships into fuel for moving forward and achieving extraordinary goals. Dr. Urban A. Kiernan, Ph.D., is one of those people who pushes through the confines of life’s obstacles by creating balance in his world. His drive toward excellence allowed him to focus on academic success and ultimately build a business that is creating innovative treatments for some of the most destructive diseases. 


Defining Himself

Dr. Kiernan is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of iMetabolic Biopharma Corporation (iMBP) in Tempe, Arizona. As an accomplished scientist and businessman, he has developed his career through a “go get things done” approach and attitude. Although he has only worked in industry, Dr. Kiernan has authored over 45 peer-reviewed publications, four book chapters, been awarded $4,000,000 in NIH funding and has had a dozen patents issued since earning his Ph.D. in 2002.

Dr. Kiernan’s approach to success was not a naturally given skill. It emerged from a childhood marked by the adversity of the social environment of that time.

“Growing up as a minority in the 70s and 80s in rural Canada wasn’t the easiest thing in the world. Reality is tough, and people can be mean, but I don’t hold any grudges. The world was different then, and those were some vital life lessons for me to learn. In the end, everything happens for a reason; you just need to go find it,” he shared.   

His response was to empower and reinvent himself.

“I wasn’t going to let them get the best of me. I used this adversity as motivation to let go, move on and better myself,” he said. 

His life transformation began with his transition from elementary school to junior high. To redefine himself, he took that summer to change his image and began to forge himself into the person he wanted to become. He seized an opportunity to attend a different school across town and immersed himself in a new group of peers.   

Dr. Kiernan could have let the scars of his childhood define him, or he could use them as motivation to define himself. He chose the latter, resulting in a life consisting of several “evolutions,” in his words, in which he has emerged every time as a better version of himself.


Finding Chemistry

“My dad had a master’s degree in chemistry, so I’ve been exposed to the concepts of chemistry my entire life,” Dr. Kiernan shared. “Other kids would toss the ball around — my dad showed me how to run experiments in the lab.”

Earning his Ph.D. took him on a new journey in bioanalytical chemistry — focusing on the study of human proteins as biomarkers for disease diagnostic applications.

“I was fortunate in that I ended up making a discovery that positioned me to lead one of the most successful Small Business programs funded by the National Institute of Digestive Diabetes and Kidney Disease (NIDDK). That success solidified my name in stone in the scientific world and allowed me to formulate a unique understanding of how the structure and function of certain proteins can change in the development of disease,” he explained. 

The path to this success began as he evolved and effectively moved beyond his childhood hardships.


Finding Empowerment in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)

Dr. Kiernan began learning Judo when he was eight years old. Recognizing the struggles their son was experiencing, his parents put him in a program that would lead to self-empowerment.

“It gave me a good foundation. You’ve got the physical and competitive aspects of it, but the core attribute of all martial arts is the internal journey. You develop a better understanding of yourself and harness the ability to find peace and combat both innate and external stresses. We are often our own worst enemy,” he shared.

Dr. Kiernan has always believed you need a strong body, mind and spirit to be a complete person, so now in his 40s, he has turned his martial arts focus to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a grappling martial art with common roots with Judo. 

“Today, jiu-jitsu gives me an outlet for everyday life. It allows me to be physically active, along with the satisfaction of learning new skills. However, I also embrace the ability to go on that inner journey for myself, which adds a spiritual, even religious aspect. It forces you to be in the present in the moment,” he explained.

He went on to elaborate that many people cannot get past the fighting aspect of BJJ. However, he stressed that in his experience, this is only a fraction of what comprises jiu-jitsu. 

“Since this is a live martial art, you go against other practitioners in real time, playing a chess game in both strategy and physical ability. You need to be present in the moment and check your problems at the door, or else you are going to take a beating,” he shared.

Achieving this “being in the moment” is what makes BJJ have such an appealing draw to many successful people with high-stress lifestyles.  

It is not unusual for BJJ students to experience this greater perception of body, mind and spirit, which is therapeutic on so many different levels.  

“I go to BJJ practice, where I am forced to be mentally present. It frees my brain to collate data and go into an auto problem-solving mode. Countless times, after I have cooled down from practice, an answer I have been searching for all day presents itself. It’s a grounding and driving force in my life and helps give me balance,” he explained. 


Achieving Balance

“We live in an age when people are fundamentally off-balance,” Dr. Kiernan observed. “That makes even the simplest of tasks challenging.”

Achieving balance in body, mind and spirit influences all facets of life. But that wasn’t always the case for Dr. Kiernan.

“I had a successful career in a small biotech company. After an acquisition, I got sucked into that big business corporate mentality of working over 100 hours a week. I slept two hours a night to be the job. I was a single dad to two young daughters; my first wife passed away from cancer in 2006. A fundamental lack of life balance absolutely took its toll on me,” he shared.

Realizing that he needed to save himself and revamp his life, Dr. Kiernan left the corporate world. He improved his health habits, invested in relationships and reprioritized what was important to him. This resulted in him meeting and marrying his best friend, beginning his BJJ journey and having a son. The restoration of balance in his life has made his business possible.


Founding iMetabolic Biopharma Corporation (iMBP)

iMBP was created out of a series of steps that originally began with over a decade of scientific research studying human blood proteins and disease. 

“When I began my career, we used cutting-edge technology called mass spectrometry to detect and study subtle changes in specific human proteins with the onset of different diseases. This research prompted me to view disease pathology in an innovative way. This work was largely supported by multiple biomarker and diagnostic research programs in the National Institutes of Health. I had a lot of success in identifying disease-relevant targets of clinical value,” he shared.

 “We had a lot of passion for what we were doing in support of disease diagnostics. I have since evolved beyond these beginnings and moved into the therapeutic space. iMBP is focused on bringing forward solutions in the battle against some of the world’s most pressing diseases,” he went on to state. 

Reestablishing balance not only stabilized his personal life but also cleared the way for him to bring iMBP to life. 

“After restoring balance in my life, I took the same out-of-the-box thinking and am now applying it to develop innovative disease treatments. The iMBP therapeutics in development are biologics, not small molecules you take as a pill; they’re functional proteins engineered through biotechnology and administered via injection. This in itself is not new, but how and what we are specifically doing is pretty cool. So far, we have four therapeutic candidate programs ongoing and a half dozen different molecules in various degrees of early design,” he explained.

By integrating key computational components, iMBP is poised to become disruptive to the industry.

“Many of the techniques still widely used today in biotechnology are 30 to 40 years old. With our technological innovations, we are flipping biotech on its head … becoming more TechBio,” Dr. Kiernan shared.

iMBP’s goal is simple — to develop therapeutics to treat diseases that push society off-balance.


Moving Forward in Balance

Dr. Kiernan credits his capable team and his family for the company’s many successes. Every day his team applies their expertise to move the company forward, while his family accepts the sacrifices of a startup entrepreneur. 

His advice to others? 

“You have to confront the negative voice in your mind that tries to talk you out of fulfilling your dream and derail you from becoming the best person you can possibly be. By having balance, you can stabilize yourself and create a support system that encourages you,” he shared.

Dr. Kiernan has created balance in his life and has great confidence in his life’s path despite his childhood struggles.

“I was meant to get my Ph.D. in order to develop these drugs that will help people who are suffering,” he said. “This is my gift and my legacy to the world.”

Gaye Newton

Gaye Newton