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Life Sciences Can Generate Start-Ups, With a Little Help

Douglas Crawford (Elisabeth Fall, California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences)

Douglas Crawford (Elisabeth Fall, California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences)

A case study of innovation in the life sciences in San Francisco shows academic researchers, with the right kind of support, can generate a high number of start-up companies producing new products for the marketplace. The study focuses on the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3) and its entrepreneurial programs, which appears in this week’s issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine; paid subscription required.

The study, written by Douglas Crawford, QB3’s associate director (pictured right) and three colleagues, analyzes the institute’s entrepreneurial support efforts, starting with the process of translating an idea into a business, to getting the business off the ground, to growing the business into a thriving operation. QB3 supports the University of California campuses in the bay area, including San Francisco, Berkeley, and Santa Cruz.

In 2005, QB3 began its first entrepreneurial “garage” incubator at UC San Francisco’s Mission Bay campus. Crawford and colleagues found that since then, academic scientists particularly graduate students and postdocs, need only a little help through training, mentorship, and seed capital to make the leap into entrepreneurship.

Since the first incubator in 2005, the number of QB3 inclubators has grown to five in the region. In the past six years, entrepreneurs in those incubators formed 60 companies, of which 45 are still part of the incubators, with 13 companies that QB3 considers thriving. Those companies have attracted some $230 million in funding — small business grants or angel/venture financing — creating 280 high-quality jobs. In the past year alone, 75 new entrepreneurs have joined the QB3 network.

To help new life science entrepreneurs over the initial barriers, QB3 offers its Startup in a Box program, a package of mentoring services that helps translate a discovery into a business plan and takes budding entrepreneurs through the business start-up process. The program includes vital nuts-and-bolts services such as intellectual property and other business law counseling, and advice for establishing a commercial bank account. The program also includes advice on filing a Small Business Innovation Research grant application and coaching on making a pitch to investor prospects.

Distilling these experiences, Crawford highlights the following key elements in creating an entrepreneural-friendly environment for academic scientists:

– An open network approach that enables any entrepreneur to participate

– Competitive seed funding options; a foundation offers Bridging the Gap Awards for taking NIH-funded research ideas into a start-up

– Life science-focused incubators

– Real-world mentoring

Crawford says the need for entrepreneurial programs in the life sciences are needed now more than ever. “There is a distressing paucity of new drugs in the pipeline and a clear need for new economic engines in this country,” says Crawford. “This is a call to action to address that.”

In the following video, Crawford and a scientist who started a company under QB3 tutelage, tell more about the program.

Read more:

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