Science, Startups and the St Regis: Learnings from the San Francisco Business Times’ Annual Biotech Forum

By: Ryan Mattison

On Wednesday, May 27th, I attended the San Francisco Business Times’ Biotech Forum, hosted at the beautiful St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco. The conference began with three five-minute presentations from Nano Precision Medical, True North Therapeutics, and Guardant Health, three hot startups building new products and developing cutting-edge technologies to drive the next wave of innovation in the space. The conference then shifted to a panel, composed of Steve Kaldor, CEO of Quanticel and partner at Versant Ventures, Sara Radcliffe, CEO of California Life Sciences Association, Regis Kelly, Director at QB3, Stephen Isaacs, CEO of Aduro Biotech, and Rachel Haurwitz, CEO of Caribou Biosciences and moderated by the exceptional Ron Leuty. Here are some of the key issues, trends, and topics dominating the conversations around this hot sector.

Seed Funding Remains a Critical Issue for the Industry

Nearly everyone on the panel — and even a few biotech startups CEOs I met in the audience — noted obtaining seed funding for biotech startups continues to represent a challenge for the space, despite heartening results from later stage biotech companies or the increasingly favorable regulatory environment. Encouraging, however, was discussion around new seed funds specifically for biotech startups, including QB3, the life science startup incubator associated with the Universities of California.

If You Thought Bay-Area Housing was Bad, Try Finding a Research Space

You can’t talk about the Bay Area without mentioning the utterly ridiculous cost of housing; tech startups are no different, fighting to pay a premium for what limited office space is available. Biotech companies, however, face a unique challenge: they need research space, not just an office. One panelist noted their company had been looking to expand their footprint for months, but there were literally no office spaces available. As more biotech startups come into the market and current ones expand, no one is feeling the real estate crunch in the Bay Area more than biotech.

Bye-bye Point Solutions — Introducing Biotech as a Health Platform

When many outside the industry think of biotech, it’s hard not to see the highly specialized therapies and products being developed as therapeutics for specific diseases. Each of the startup companies that presented at the conference, however, made it very clear their technology didn’t serve a single need or address a single disease, but rather served as a much broader health delivery platform capable of ameliorating a variety of conditions. Not only does developing these technologies allow biotech startups to assist more patients, it dramatically increases their business viability, a point driven home by each of the startup executives.

Biotech Gets Distributed, and I’m Not Talking Statistics

My friends who work in biotech in Boston and San Diego would kill me for saying this, but despite all the hype and rivalry, the conference panelists were mostly in agreement there’s no greater concentration of talent, capital, and resources for biotech than in the Bay Area. While the Bay Area remains the holy land of biotech, there’s a growing trend toward distributed work forces, with companies increasingly splitting their offices between the three biotech Meccas of the Bay, San Diego and Boston to get the best of the best in terms of talent and facilities. As new collaborative technologies come online, it will be interesting to see how these new workforce realities impact research, product development and company culture in the biotech space.

Biotech Needs to Better Communicate with Everyone Not in Biotech

Perhaps the most striking moment during the forum came Sara Radcliffe, CEO of CLSA, said one of the greatest threats to the biotech space, particularly startups, manifests in the form of general reporters and investors. She noted the complexity of the space, and how many reporters and investors unfamiliar with this complexity fail to understand the nuances driving the sector, and in their failing, misrepresent it. As biotech (along with the rest of healthtech) moves more and more into the purview of the consumer, it will be exciting to see how the industry adapts to better communicate with these increasingly important audiences.

Did you attend SFBT’s Biotech Forum? I’d love to hear your thoughts and takeaways — tweet me @ryrymattison.