Bellator MMA President Scott Coker: Transforming the American sports landscape

Founded in 2008, Bellator MMA has been a staple of the combat sport world for over a decade, and is the second largest combat sport promotion in the United States. In 2014, Mr Rebney was replaced by the founder of MMA and Kickboxing organization Strikeforce, Scott Coker, who was bought in to make the promotion less tournament focused. Born in Seoul, Korea, Mr Coker relocated to the US as a child, settling in San Jose, CA. Executive America spoke with Mr Coker to discuss his love for martial arts and the future of Bellator.

Martial arts

“It’s been an interesting journey,” Mr Coker says of his career so far. “It really goes back to martial arts. I was a student of [American martial artist] Ernie Reyes Sr., and I just fell in love with martial arts. I had a school, I used to teach children, teach adults. I dedicated my whole life to helping grow martial arts and helping educate people about martial arts.”

For Mr Coker, the eventual move into the growing sport of MMA was a natural extension of this love for the discipline. Since MMA has become more accessible, with shows airing on prime-time television, its reputation and appeal has grown rapidly. Mr Coker has certainly been a driving force behind that growth.

“Mixed Martial Arts is an eclectic style of different disciplines, combined into one discipline, which is becoming its own discipline. That’s what the future of martial arts is. It’s proven in the cage every Friday and Saturday night somewhere on the planet.”

As a taekwondo student in the San Jose region, Mr Coker began his journey into promoting by starting to organize kickboxing events. The first show he promoted was at the San Jose Civic Auditorium, the largest venue in San Jose at the time despite holding just 3,200 people.

“[It was] in 1985, at the Civic Auditorium. No TV, no sponsorship, just a live event where you sell tickets. We had a big support group in the martial arts community in the Bay Area, which at that time had probably about 80-100 [martial arts] schools, just in the San Francisco Bay Area. We would go out and get the community to support us.”

This first fight attracted around 2,800 spectators, nearly 80% of which came from local martial arts schools. Mr Coker made around $5k that night, and immediately realized the potential of promoting fights again in the future.

“That was my start, and within a year I started doing fights for an organization called PKA [Professional Karate Association], which had fighters like Ray McCallum and Dan Anderson. It was on ESPN, and the ratings did very well.”

After the collapse of PKA, one of Mr Coker’s team contacted ESPN to see if the network was still interested in kickboxing. The answer was ‘yes’, and the result was a new show called Strikeforce, which began in 1993. This was the beginning of the brand that Mr Coker would go on to establish several years later.

“It was strictly kickboxing,” he says. “We did Muay Thai, we did fights all over the world. It was 22 shows a year, all kickboxing. Then I got an opportunity from that to meet [karate master Kazuyoshi] Ishii from K-1. The greatest fighters in the heavyweight division at that time were fighting in Japan, and they asked me to run their North American operations.”

After considering his options, Mr Coker agreed to work for K-1 for a while, gaining huge experience from his time there. In 2006, MMA was made legal in California and he wasted no time founding Strikeforce MMA, which opened with a fight between Frank Shamrock and Cesar Gracie at the SAP Arena in San Jose.

“Working for Mr Ishii in Japan was like going to get your Graduate Degree. I felt like I had a Master’s Degree already. What he taught me was the international side of the business. Coming from martial arts, we just spoke the same language, and he took me under his wing and showed me the ropes, which I’m forever grateful for. He was a great mentor.”

Free form fighting

The evolution of MMA as a discipline over the last few decades has introduced many martial arts fans to newer, more free form fighting. For Mr Coker, the evolution was no surprise, as he had grown up with an eclectic Filipino master as an instructor, gaining experience in styles other than just traditional taekwondo. 

For the fighters, the evolution was slower. After different styles of fighter joined the discipline over the years, they had to adapt their styles to the demands of the sport, and this meant learning techniques from multiple disciplines.

“It took about fifteen years until people understood – I’ve got to do jujitsu, I’ve got to do wrestling, I have to do striking, boxing and Thai boxing. Georges St-Pierre I believe was one of the first fighters who put it all together. Now what you see is a complete fighter.”

It soon became clear that if a fighter wasn’t able to learn all these different styles and successfully combine them, they would be at a disadvantage when facing others that were able to do so. The modern MMA fighter was born out of this need to compete across styles.

After Strikeforce was sold off to Ultimate Fighting Championship owner Zuffa LLC in early 2011, Mr Coker briefly became an employee of the UFC, needing to wait out a non-compete clause before he could invest his time into his next venture.

“I didn’t really know what I was going to do when the non-compete ended,” he admits. “Probably about 3 or 4 months before the non-compete ended, I started getting offers from different people to meet.”

One of his first meetings was with Kevin Kay from Spike TV, which is owned by Viacom, to discuss taking over Bellator MMA. At this point, Mr Coker wasn’t sure that he wanted to build something for someone else, and was determined to branch out on his own.

“I felt like Bellator was not doing that well at that time, it did not have the roster that it has today. Today it has one of the greatest rosters that I’ve ever been associated with; the best roster in the history of this company, that’s for sure.”

The problem was that Kevin Kay came across as a genuinely good guy, with the power of persuasion on his side. Mr Coker pretty quickly liked his vibe, and bought in to the ideas he had about the future of Bellator.

“I thought, I wish I didn’t like this guy this much as far as wanting to work with him. I think I could learn a lot from this guy. I woke up one day and I said: ‘alright, let’s just do it.’ That was probably about five and a half years ago.”

Bellator MMA

By the time Mr Coker had agreed to take over Bellator, previous CEO and Chairman Bjorn Rebney had already been let go. On arrival at the company’s offices, Mr Coker reassured staff that their jobs were safe, and that there was a lot of work to do to get up to speed.

“The very first Bellator fight I went to after taking over, it made me realize that we had a lot of work to do, and a lot of growth to do. It’s taken five years to get there. These fighters, it takes about 4 or 5 years to build them, to get them competitive to where they can fight anybody in the world. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

When Mr Coker came in, the biggest change needed was to invest in talent, to start signing fighters and building them. In addition, Bellator had so many overlapping tournaments running that fans would struggle to follow everything that was going on.

“So I said, we’re going to take a step back. We’re not going to do the tournaments, we’re going to do single fights, start building from the ground up, buying free agents from the top down. We did what we needed to do to survive the first couple of years with the talent base that we had, which was moderate at best.”

Today, Bellator’s strength is in building a roster from the bottom up. Mr Coker has helped to make the company good star identifiers and builders, with a real solid background in finding and recognizing talent.

“We have access to every gym in the country, every manager in the world. When you pluck somebody from a boxing or jujitsu tournament, it’s not going to be a very quick process. Now people are able to see the fruits of our labor for the last five and a half years. It’s the exact same formula I used in Strikeforce, and I think we’re going to have great results.”

Bellator now has 250 athletes signed under contract, having built the best roster it has ever seen. The whole model is relationship-based, and Mr Coker has made it his mission to gain trust in the players and managers in order to recruit the best talent. 

“It’s been quite a ride,” Mr Coker concludes. “Thirty-six years. When I sold Strikeforce, I remember saying to somebody – it only took 24 years to become an overnight success. Now, thirty-six years into it, it’s been a rollercoaster ride, but so many great high points and I just love it. It’s been a lot of fun.”

To find out more about Bellator MMA, visit https://www.bellator.com.

Acerus Pharmaceuticals (TSX:ASP | OTCQB:ASPCF): Building a sustainable, value-driven company

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A TSX-listed commercial-stage pharmaceutical company, Acerus Pharmaceuticals has a vision to become a leading specialty pharmaceutical company focused on urology and Men’s Health with its nasal testosterone treatment, Natesto.

Founded in 2009 and listed on the TSX (ASP) and the OTCQB (ASPCF), Acerus Pharmaceuticals is a micro-cap with a market cap of $50m CAD as of August 25th 2020. Company President and CEO Ed Gudaitis has held numerous senior positions in multi-national pharmaceutical companies, working in both Canada and the United States, and has been responsible throughout his career for launching and building billion-dollar pharmaceutical product franchises and country operations. Mr Gudaitis discusses Natesto, the firm’s disruptive technology that can potentially secure significant share in a more than $1 billion USD global market, the unique opportunity available to potential investors in the company, and Acerus’ vision to become a leading specialty pharmaceutical company in urology and Men’s Health.

Nasal testosterone

“Acerus is a commercial-stage specialty pharmaceutical company,” Mr Gudaitis explains. “We have an approved product on the market that we are commercializing, and our focus of effort is on specialists, not primary care physicians.”

Although the company is based in Ontario, Canada, its business is global. The company manufacturers and commercializes its core product, Natesto, in a number of global markets, including the US, Canada, South Korea, and Taiwan, with plans to move into Europe in the next eighteen months.

“In the US and Canada we commercialize the product directly through our own sales and marketing efforts, while in South Korea and Taiwan, and eventually in Europe, we commercialize through partnerships with local operating companies.”

Unlike some other companies in the specialty pharma space, Acerus is not built on licensing in other people’s assets. Acerus’ focus is on manufacturing and commercializing its core product in-house, making it a unique proposition as a company.

“We’ve been around for a while. Formed in 2009, the company has gone through a couple of iterations of strategy. It was previously called the Trimel Pharmaceuticals company, and it was structured to capitalize on a core technology, our nasal gel technology, which enables us to deliver products in a unique, patient-friendly manner.”

The problem that the company looks to solve is a very unique. Our primary market opportunity is the treatment of low testosterone, otherwise known as male hypogonadism. Around 14 million US males potentially have low testosterone, making a sizeable possible market.

“It’s about a $1bn USD prescription product market opportunity in the United States, with about 7 million prescriptions written per year. There are products that exist today, however there is no truly ideal product in the market place. There are a number of products with challenges in terms of how they’re delivered.”

The main options in the market for low testosterone currently are testosterone injections, deep and painful injections with a large needle, presenting challenges with self-injection. There are also topical gels, which act like a skin lotion that you rub in each day.

“With the topical gels, you have to worry about potentially transferring the product to your spouse or your children,” Mr Gudaitis explains. “After you apply the product to your body, you have to let it dry for twenty minutes, it can absorb differentially and not evenly all the time. As a result, there are several challenges with existing products in this market.”

It is estimated that up to 70% of patients on prescription treatments for low testosterone will switch therapy at least once to look for better options, as patients and their physicians are unsatisfied with the current treatments available.

“Prescription treatment of low testosterone is a very large market that has been well established. Physicians know how to diagnose, treat and prescribe low testosterone treatments. However, there is no single ideal product in the market. We think we can solve a number of problems within this large market, providing a patient-friendly, safer, effective alternative in a very large and growing market opportunity.”

Acerus’ unique technology creates a different product than any other in the market for testosterone treatment, an intra-nasal gel application of testosterone applied with a small dispenser three times a day on the inside of your nostril.

“It’s a little bit like a topical hand lotion that you would put on your hand. It’s a gel, not a spray, applied with our dispenser on the inside of your nasal cavity. The product is rapidly absorbed, highly effective, with low side effects.”

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“With the topical gels, you have to worry about potentially transferring the product to your spouse or your children” - Mr Gudaitis

Unsatisfied market

The uniqueness of this nasal testosterone technology offers investors an exciting opportunity to invest in a company with a highly differentiated, unique product offering.  The technology is an Acerus propriety technology, which was licensed in by Acerus, protected by a strong patent strategy.

“The Intellectual Property in the US, Canada and Europe is very long-ranging. We have a current suite of patents that would take us into the mid-2020s. We have new patent filings and strategies that we’re actively working that would take patent protection into the early and potentially the late-2030s. We have a unique technology and a solid IP platform to work from.”

This means the company has a ten or twelve year run in front of it with a very large, unsatisfied market opportunity to be capitalized on. This opportunity is primarily in the United States, but there is also significant market opportunity in the Canadian and European markets.

“If investors are looking for an opportunity,” Mr Gudaitis says, “we’ve got all the pieces in place, we now need to execute and deliver on the opportunity that’s there. We’ve got a better product, in a large market that’s unsatisfied – let’s go and make it happen.”

The company’s management team is made up of Mr Gudaitis, who has been in the pharmaceutical business for over 25 years, and new additions who bring relevant expertise within the US pharmaceutical market – Chief Medical Officer Dr Chris Sorli and US Commercial Leader Kevin Hickey.

“I spent about eleven years with Gilead Sciences as part of my career journey, some of that here in Canada building the Canadian operation from scratch to about a $1.2bn CAD business, but also in the US, where I was Senior Director for HIV marketing for a number of years, launching several large HIV products in the US.”

Dr Sorli is a board certified US-based endocrinologist and is responsible for the company’s medical affairs and R&D activities. His background is in diabetes, metabolism and Men’s Health.  He has previously organized and set-up a large men’s and women’s health practice in his home state of Montana. 

“[Dr Sorli] has direct clinical experience treating the type of patients we would be treating with Natesto, but he’s also very much been on the forefront of metabolic disease and diabetes, which is an area that we’re interested in looking at with respect to Natesto, and he’ll be actively driving the strategic development of the clinical profile of Natesto.”

Based out of Philadelphia, Mr Hickey brings fifteen years of direct commercial experience in the US and will be responsible for leading the Natesto business in the US as the company moves forward.

“From a management perspective, we’ve got people with direct experience in the U.S. marketplace, and relevant experience to our business, to our therapeutic area and to what we’re trying to achieve onboard at Acerus.”

The company’s board has also seen some recent additions, complimenting a number of long-standing members, including Chairman Ian Ihnatowycz, who has served as a Director since September 2013.

“[Ian] is our leading shareholder; he owns about 84% of the company, and he’s been a long-time board member. He’s a long-time investor and has been a core visionary for the company over that period of time.”

Other long-time board members include entrepreneur Stephen Gregory, and Borys Chabursky who is the founder and Chairman of Shift Health, a healthcare consultancy in Toronto, plugging him in to the start-up, Venture Capital and healthcare consulting spaces.

“We’ve added two new board members recently – a fellow by the name of Scott Leckie, who’s our Audit Committee Chair, he’s a CFA and has significant investment experience. He used to run a private investment company, so he brings that capital markets/investment side to the table.”

“We also recently added Geoff Cotton, a US-based commercial and medical affairs pharmaceutical expert. He is an MD by training, has worked in medical affairs, and he’s also launched products in the US and has run various US businesses, at one point for Gilead, that range up to about $8-9bn USD in sales.”

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Acerus’ patent strategy presents a unique opportunity for success for the company and potential investors

Block and tackle

With this mix of long-standing team members and new faces, Mr Gudaitis is confident that the team has the relevant experience and skills to make the business a success with Natesto, which he identifies as the company’s short-term goal.

“I usually describe our strategy in three phases – phase one is the here and now phase, and really the goal is to get Natesto moving and get it commercialized successfully in the US. That’s the core platform for the company, that’s the foundation for the business, and we will build the company around that success, and that’s really what we’re focused on right now.”

The second phase is to leverage the commercial infrastructure the company has built in the US by adding more products to its portfolio through business development opportunities that will complement and leverage the investment already made.

“The third phase of the growth strategy for us would be to circle back to our pipeline and bring in some additional products, whether they are something that we can build into the nasal gel technology, or even something that complements our focus on urology and endocrinology from an R&D perspective.”

The end goal is to have a growing and maturing business with Natesto that becomes the engine of the company, with a couple of complimentary assets added around the product in order to leverage the commercial infrastructure and investment, and then something in the pipeline to give the company continuity into the future.

“So that we have a late-stage mature product, we have a growth product, and we have some new products,” Mr Gudaitis says. “That would be the ultimate goal in what we’re trying to achieve in terms of the short, medium and long-term to build a sustainable, value-driving company for investors.”

Over his 25 years in the business, Mr Gudaitis believes he has learned some important lessons, many of which came during his time working at Gilead Sciences, a company that was run on the premise of being lean, hands-on and focused on outcomes.

“For a small company like Acerus, I look through that lens every day. We have undergone some significant reorganization and streamlining of the operations. The biggest lessons for me have been – focus on what you can control, keep the business lean, and keep focused on the result and the outcome. That’s one of my key takeaways from my Gilead experience.”

Another key lesson learned has been to embrace good old fashioned blocking and tackling, a strategy that the management and board are well set-up to execute in the case of Natesto to make the business a success.

“If you go in and do the basic executional elements well – build good key opinion leader support, make people aware of the product, have reimbursement in place, have the support systems for physicians and practices to get product to people when they need it, and have patients activated to ask for the product – you will be successful in this category.”

With a full product life cycle in front of it, Acerus’ patent strategy presents a unique opportunity for success for the company and potential investors. Find out more about Acerus Pharmaceuticals Corporation by visiting www.aceruspharma.com.

Openspace Architecture: A window to nature

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Based on Vancouver’s North Shore, Openspace Architecture is a boutique architectural and interior design practice specializing in single family and resort residential projects, with a broad range of experience in master planning and infrastructure projects.

A visionary who truly cares for others and deeply respects the land, Openspace Owner Don Gurney produces work that is contemporary in expression, with a deep understanding of the long tradition of architecture and design. Mr Gurney’s hands-on methodology is driven by his great reverence for the relationships between people, nature, and the built environment. The Openspace team strives to elevate the field of Architecture, creating a legacy through design excellence. Mr Gurney speaks to us about his experience of open space planning, the company’s focus on introducing its building system to countries around the world, and the commitment to creating buildings that provide a window to nature.

Open space planning

The practice began life in 1998 as Don Gurney Architects, founded by Mr Gurney alongside current Associate and Senior Technologist Eric Pettit. In 2008 the name of the company was changed to Openspace Architecture.

“That name comes from my planning experience,” Mr Gurney says. “I was with an international planning firm for many years, where we worked on projects internationally, but primarily in the downtown waterfront area [of Vancouver].”

Open space planning became a large component of those mega developments, during which Mr Gurney gained experience working for clients such as Marathon, Concord Pacific and Vancouver Port Authority. Realizing and working with open space planning became very important to him, and that’s how the name originated.

In his current work, Mr Gurney aims to find balance in the relationship between objects and spaces to create an effortless sense of harmony. He approaches projects with both restraint and an eye for detail, using natural materials to harness minimalist expression.

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Based on Vancouver’s North Shore, Openspace Architecture is a boutique architectural and interior design practice specializing in single family and resort residential projects, with a broad range of experience in master planning and infrastructure projects

“My whole background has been in the construction industry. I started out very early, from my early teens, working construction. That led to a technical diploma in architectural design and drawing. From that I was a technician for five years with an architectural firm, then in 1983 I decided to go back to university and study architecture at Carleton University.”

Mr Gurney brings a humanist approach to his comprehensive understanding of planning requirements, honoring site context and working hard to enhance the way buildings are experienced, with the ultimate aim of creating harmony between indoors and outdoors.

Local and international projects

The projects Openspace has been involved in over the years have spread across Vancouver, from West Van to North Van and the Olympic training facility. Locally, the practice’s most notable work is in West Vancouver and the Whistler area.

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With a commitment to creating buildings that provide a window to nature, and the capabilities to introduce its successful building system around the globe, Openspace Architecture has navigated the coronavirus pandemic successfully

Known across the globe as a world class ski resort, Whistler has seen a lot of work over the last ten years, and it has become established as an all-seasons resort, bringing many more people to the area over the course of a year.

“It’s now for mountain bikers, and everything else from fly fishing to hiking, and everything else that goes along with that resort. As far as our clients are concerned [at Whistler], I would say that probably 95% of them are international clients, from all over the place – the UK, Australia, South Africa and Malaysia.”

In terms of its work in British Columbia, the practice’s footprint is far reaching, having done work on the interior of BC, as well as on Vancouver Island, in Tofino, Saanich Peninsula and Cowichan Lake. 

“Most of the projects we do,” Mr Gurney explains, “with the exception of West Vancouver, are secondary projects or second residential resort type homes. So this has been our primary focus for the last fifteen years.”

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Open space planning became a large component of those mega developments, during which Mr Gurney gained experience working for clients such as Marathon, Concord Pacific and Vancouver Port Authority

The company’s history has seen much of its work done in this space, making impressive second homes for high net worth individuals. Recently it has been moving into other architectural areas, such as hotels and restoration.

“We’re doing some restorative work that has been happening in California, most particularly in Sonoma County, where the fires have had a devastating effect on the wineries. We’re rebuilding a winery and a number of support buildings that were devastated by the Kincade fire in 2019.”

In addition to its work in California, the company has been involved in several other projects in the United States, including four successful resort homes at Noi’Ulu Estates, Hualalai, on the Big Island of Hawaii, and ongoing work at another resort in Hawaii building family homes for private clients.

The practice is also beginning a large and an exciting off-the-grid planning and architectural design project for residential homes, which will be located midway between Carmel and Monterey on the California coast.

In addition to local success, the passion for architecture in the company has led to projects in a number of countries, with a focus on taking local experience and adapting to the work and design styles of different cultures. 

“We started out doing simple timber frame homes, and evolved that over the years into doing these lovely projects which are a mix of timber frame and hybrid steel buildings. We’ve developed a nice system, and we want to introduce other countries – such as India, Japan, Mongolia – to these systems, to bring them a new type of housing.”

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The company’s history has seen much of its work done in this space, making impressive second homes for high net worth individuals

Creative outlook

Architecture has always been a competitive sector, but in recent years it has seen the rise of new technologies, particularly in terms of highly integrated 3D modelling known as building information modelling (BIM), which have changed the face of the industry.

“[BIM] is taking over much of the industry, but where it hasn’t really reached is the residential market. These homes are every bit as expensive as some of the smaller hospitals and schools, but for some reason the digital information modelling has not got into the market. Given the level of sophistication of these homes, it certainly should be.”

This is an area that Mr Gurney feels Openspace Architecture has an advantage over competitors. With BIM, the company is able to resolve the buildings, relative to the site, in 3D computer modelling with integrated structural, mechanical, electrical and smart home systems, before even beginning construction.

With its focus on a highly creative process, Openspace offers a playful yet rigorous approach to design, bringing projects to life through the pollination of key ideas and a strongly integrated design process.

Openspace offers a playful yet rigorous approach to design, bringing projects to life through the pollination of key ideas and a strongly integrated design process

The open space nature of its designs is integral to the company’s ethos. Buildings with lots of glass, and the large spans created by timber and steel, offer its inhabitants a huge window on nature, like a lens through which to view the natural world.

“It’s quite an experience to live in these homes. When you look at a particular site, whether it’s a mountain site, or a desert site, or a lakefront site, you find the best part of the site, and then put the building on the worst part of the site, so that you can view onto the best part. This is essentially what we mean by open space planning.”

Teamwork is integral to the company’s ongoing success. Clients and consultants are made to feel welcome and appreciated in Openspace’s creative studio, which provides the space for an invaluable exchange of cutting edge ideas and constructive critiques.

The company’s current focus is on taking the technologies it has developed to other countries, sharing with the rest of the world Canada’s excellence in the space. So far the reception in these countries has been very positive.

“Something that we think is important in the work that we do, whether it’s commercial work or residential work, is just keeping people in contact with real materials. We’re using materials like stone, timber, some metals, that once you walk in the building you don’t need a period of adjustment, your body is settled and at one with it.”

Coupled with the need for low energy consumption and sustainable design, the mixture of real materials and a feeling of communion with nature is the nexus of Openspace’s business, creating a blend of mind and spirit that remains critical to its success.

With a commitment to creating buildings that provide a window to nature, and the capabilities to introduce its successful building system around the globe, Openspace Architecture has navigated the coronavirus pandemic successfully. Find out more about Openspace Architecture by visiting www.openspacearchitecture.com.