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“Raw Potential” and three other takeaways from NY’s Life Science Disruptors

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

This is an excerpt of a piece that appeared on xconomy.com. Read the full article here.

The Alexandria Center for Life Science currently houses some of the most ambitious biotech startups in New York, not to mention some outposts for pharma companies like Roche and Pfizer. Not bad for something that, as Alexandria Real Estate Equities CEO Joel Marcus said, “was a contaminated laundry site” just a short time ago.

The change Marcus described as he kicked things off last night at our latest annual New York biotech event, “New York’s Life Science Disruptors,” was symbolic of what’s happened in New York over the past few years. This is a biotech community being built from the ground up by institutions, entrepreneurs, and, of late, early-stage investors. It’s nowhere close to the biotech startup hubs of Boston and San Francisco. Change like that could take decades, and for it to happen, New York needs, as Flagship Ventures partner Doug Cole said, its own Biogen, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, or Genentech—companies that grow, succeed, and contribute important drugs.

“Once people start seeing some reference companies, they will gravitate towards wanting to do the next ones,” he said. “And those companies will spawn the people who will do the ones [after that].”

That type of productive ecosystem is a long way off, and New York biotech has a lot to figure out first. It needs to overcome the looming losses of community leaders Marc Tessier-Lavigne (president of Rockefeller University) and Laurie Glimcher (dean of Weill Cornell Medical College), solve its seemingly never-ending lab space problem, and find affordable housing for its employees—particularly those coming right out of school—in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

But the difference now in New York is that there are potential candidates to become big biotech companies in the future that, in turn, could breed more biotechs the way they do in Boston and San Francisco. Startups like Kallyope, Petra Pharma, and Lodo Therapeutics—companies spun out of New York institutions, backed by big venture rounds, with aspirations to stay in the city—have emerged. Their fates will help determine what happens to the momentum that’s gained in New York.

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Breaking down silos, and going where the money is. Lewis Cantley is perhaps best known for work he did at Harvard Medical School discovering a key enzyme implicated in cancer, and later starting several companies—among them Agios Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:AGIO). But Cantley moved from Harvard to Weill Cornell in 2012—ultimately leading to the formation of Petra in January—and he cited two reasons. The first, he said, was that there was “elasticity” at Weill Cornell. He could “take an institution that was already fantastic but mold it” in a way that would help him rapidly translate discoveries into therapies. That helped “break down some of the silos that I found were very difficult in Boston with all the long held traditions at all the hospitals there,” he said.

The second reason? New York has an abundance of philanthropy money, which is critical at a time when it’s harder to get grant money. “Why do you rob banks? Well, that’s where the money is,” he joked.

The discrepancy between potential and success. Doug Cole was initially skeptical when Rockefeller president Marc Tessier-Lavigne asked if his firm was interested in managing the New York City Economic Development Corp.’s life sciences fund. Flagship’s got enough going on in Cambridge, and New York’s biotech challenges are well documented. For one, Cole noted, the area hasn’t “fully learned how to take advantage” of its financial might. There are only a few high-profile startups. There aren’t many “reference successes,” like a Biogen in Boston or a Genentech in San Francisco. But a couple of things piqued his interest nonetheless.

First, the presence of folks like Cantley, Tessier-Lavigne, Columbia professor Tom Maniatis, and Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center president Craig Thompson, who came from elsewhere, congregated in New York, and “demand respect and attention.” There also “appeared to be an incipient, evolving culture of interest in biotechnology in New York” and a commitment to making it work, including the support of the mayor’s office. That, combined with its high standing in a bevy of other statistics—among them yearly NIH funding and the large number of hospital beds—made it worth Flagship’s time. (The firm is managing a large portion of the NYCEDC’s $150 million fund, though it hasn’t announced a deal as of yet.)

“There’s an enormous amount of raw potential here,” Cole said. “The discrepancy between the potential and success is greater in New York than any city in the U.S. by far, and I think any city in the world. Which is another way of saying that the opportunity here exceeds the opportunity in any other place in the world.”

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