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What Incubators and Accelerators Are Playing a Critical Role in the Synthetic Biology Ecosystem?

The start-up scene. A world of endless possibilities, in which everyone you meet is fizzing with ideas, collaborations, and investment prospects. A world where party gossip revolves around minimum viable products and seed round funding. A world where the future seems limitless and your breakthrough tech will be crushing the established competition within the year, two at the most. Once you get the funding. And maybe access to some infrastructure, a piece of equipment or two.

The problem with entrepreneurial endeavours, particularly in the fields of biotech and medical research, is that the start-up costs can be prohibitively high. A simple centrifuge can set a company back by thousands of dollars, mass spectrometers or lab automation systems are far, far more expensive. Throw in the lack of business experience common to many first-time scientist entrepreneurs and that first year or two of development becomes an exceptionally tricky time.

An ecosystem of incubators and accelerators have sprung up around the globe

To avoid these early pitfalls, an ecosystem of incubators and accelerators have sprung up around the globe. Acting to protect start-ups from these initial capital costs, they contain ready-made laboratory space and all the scientific equipment anyone could need. Budding firms can then rent access to these facilities on an as-needed basis, reducing their initial outlays and bringing them into close contact with other start-ups. A number of incubators also offer business development assistance, helping founders to locate and obtain investment, mentors, and contacts. A few go even further, running in-house venture capital funds with the potential to directly invest into favoured start-ups.

Helpful as they are, there are a lot of incubators out there – and many are extremely selective about the companies they allow inside their doors. How do you get in? How do you identify the best match for your company? We’re lucky enough to have several leaders from key incubator and accelerator groups speaking at the upcoming SynBioBeta SF 2015 conference, covering a wide range of backgrounds. The session will be moderated by Lisa Krieger, from the San Jose Mercury News. With years of experience covering science, medicine and the environment, she has picked up a number of awards including Journalist of the Year for North California. We’ll be looking forward to her approach as she moderates the following speakers.

Infrastructure and Investment: QB3

QB3 was founded in 2000 as a focus for entrepreneurs in qualitative biosciences, and since then has supported a number of new life science companies. Alongside three physical locations for laboratory space in San Francisco, the Innolab division also assists with all aspects of the commercialisation process. QB3 is also closely allied to the seed-stage investment fund Mission Bay Capital, which has over 35 million USD under management. The success of the group can be seen in the quality of their graduates: firms within the QB3 incubator, entrepreneurship program, or supported by Mission Bay Capital raised 600 million USD in investment last year, with a further 161 million in revenue. Giving some insight into this process is Dr Richard Yu, Scientific Director at the QBD@953 facility. As a cofounder of several biotech companies and a partner at Mission Bay Capital, he has a unique level of insight into the venture capital process from both sides of the chequebook.

Stanley Hall, the QB3 building at UC Berkeley. Photo: Elisabeth Fall.
Stanley Hall, the QB3 building at UC Berkeley. Photo: Elisabeth Fall.

Intensive learning: IndieBio & SynbiCITE

IndieBio is an accelerator with a strong focus on the field of Synthetic Biology, the engineering of life itself. They run programs twice a year in which successful applicants are provided seed funding, lab space, mentoring, and the company of many other driven entrepreneurs. The four-month intensive program is capped by Demo Day, in which the founders and numerous venture capitalists are thrown together to work out investment opportunities. The co-founder of IndieBio, Arvind Gupta, will be speaking at SynBioBeta SF this year. Having over a decade of experience in entrepreneurship, investment, and product design, his skill at getting varied start-ups to survive the crucial early days is second to none.

We’ll also be hearing from Paul Freemont of SynbiCITE. SynbiCITE is an innovation and knowledge centre set up by the UK government, with a goal of accelerating synthetic biology technologies to market. Boasting almost 100 partners from both industry and academia coupled to a number of educational opportunities (including the exceptionally competitive LEAP program), SynbiCITE has supported a number of ground-breaking new start-ups. Paul Freemont, author of over 170 publications and board member of many biotech companies, is co-director of SynbiCITE. We’ll be looking forward with interest to his upcoming talk.

The Hidden Diamond: MMRI

The Molecular Medicine Research Institute, hidden away within the heart of Silicon Valley, CA, is something of an open secret within the healthcare space. Relatively small and unknown, it is nonetheless a destination for elite researchers studying the molecular basis of disease. Its founders, Dr Edward Amento and Dr Eugene Bauer, saw an opportunity to develop this institute while working together at Stanford University. Dr Amento, who will be speaking at SynBioBeta SF, has had a long and successful career mixing both academic and entrepreneurial success.

MMRI was founded as a non-profit research institute in 1995, with a strong focus on autoimmune and connective tissue diseases. However over the years it has slowly gathered a number of early-stage companies within its walls, drawn by the combination of state-of-the-art equipment and a collegial, academic-style approach to collaborative research. During this time they have supported over 60 companies, including start-up successes such as Abmaxis, Raven Biotechnologies, and Threshold Therapeutics.

Big Pharma, Big Potential: JLabs

Part of Johnson and Johnson, the well-known pharmaceutical company, JLabs is an incubator for companies developing game-changing products in the healthcare space. They pride themselves on acting as a single source for all of a start-up’s needs – be it infrastructure, laboratory space, or business development assistance. With a lot of floor space in locations scattered across North America (work is currently underway on their newest Toronto branch), JLabs allows companies to expand their operations as needed.

Finding those start-ups is the role of experts such as Dr Kara Bortone, Head of Company Sourcing. As such, she needs to be able to search through the mountains of biotech start-ups in order to find those gems with true potential. She will be sharing some of her knowledge of this process in her talk at SynBioBeta, and those who want to hear the inside information are encouraged to visit and ask questions.

SynBioBeta Session 1: Incubate & Accelerate, will be running from 9:15 am – 10:00 am on Nov 4th. Don’t forget to register!

Thank you to SynbiCITE, QB3 and MMRI for sponsoring the Blue Sky Bio Competition at SynBioBeta.

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Christopher Harrison

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