The world of biotechnology can be a tough nut to crack. It costs million of dollars to operationalize even the most simple chemical compounds, and millions more to pay for the support staff to cover all the administrative basics. Baybio, a local nonprofit trade association, is working to lower the barriers to entering the field by hosting the Annual Entrepreneur Roundtables at the Crowne Plaza in Palo Alto this Tuesday at 7pm.
This highly successful event grew out of the entrepreneurial arm at Baybio. Called NEST—Network for Entrepreneurial Strategies and Tactics—this group regularly holds events for the biotech community. In this case they are addressing the common complaint that start-up companies don’t have access to the same potential funders as more established companies. NEST came up with the idea of having a low-key event that leaves out much of the ceremony usually reserved for pitching ideas to venture capitalists. While this deviates slightly from NEST’s usual activities—workshops and lectures—it is part and parcel of their mission to make the life sciences field more accessible. As Rob Gamble, Executive Director of Baybio, says, “There are a lot of partnering events out there, but they are expensive to get to and are much more polished and organized.”
Tomorrow evening, however, the usual formalities are dispensed with and small start-up companies are given unprecedented access to approximately thirty potential funders over the course of three and a half hours. The event kicks off at 6pm with an informal cocktail party. For start-ups that are still in brainstorming mode this would be the most beneficial hour to attend. A room full of funders are available to bounce ideas off of and give general advice. Anyone interested in working for a small start-up can also consider this a good opportunity to learn about some of the new players and, more importantly, scope out the ones that are likely to be hiring in the near future.
At 7 o’clock a bell rings signaling the start of the main event. Representatives from each company move from table to table to pitch their ideas to organizations interested in funding life sciences work. This is where Gamble says the evening gets its comparison to speed dating–except in this case people aren’t looking for true love as much as they are looking for hard cash.
Surprisingly the range of health issues that companies are representing is incredibly varied. The stereotype of pharmaceutical companies is that they develop drugs based on what will sell the most. This would lead many to think this particular event would focus on heart disease and diabetes. Instead proposals come from all across the board—including infectious disease, prions, and painkillers. There has even been a company promoting a collagen product. The event also makes room for start-ups who aren’t promoting strictly pharmaceutical products, such as a mathematical modeling program that can help predict prognoses and disease severity.
The folks on the other side of the table come from venture capitalist firms, angel investment groups, and established pharmaceutical companies including Merck and Genentech. While the event was created with the start-ups in mind it has proven beneficial to funders as well. They get to hear from twenty or so start-ups in a short amount of time and can avoid the time-consuming process of reading lengthy proposals. Gamble adds, “A part of the reason why this works is that science has a natural collaboration internally. Also, this industry is not highly vertical. There are companies who work only in research or only in marketing. There is a not as big a sense that you are in competition with your neighbor.”
The format of the event has stayed as unstructured as possible both to keep up the pace and to prevent any problems with sharing too much information. In an industry that has seen its share of lawsuits over intellectual property all of the players in this room are very conscious of the need to keep internal information as quiet as possible. “Some people are overcautious about approaching the venture capitalist market. But here you’re just kicking the tires. You’re not selling your soul. There’s no commitment,” says Gamble.
For small life sciences companies that haven’t pre-registered there is no need to despair. Any of them are still welcome to come by and take advantage of the opportunity. While it isn’t required, it would be beneficial for representatives to bring copies of a one-page description of their company (or product) as well as plenty of business cards. For anyone planning on attending, Gamble does offer one piece of advice. “Despite the loose format people should take the opportunity seriously. Go in there knowing what you want and what you have to offer. It looks like a networking event, but it is also a business opportunity.”