Mar 30

Transcending the Biotech Barrier

In the last decade New York City has gone through many transformations. New skyscrapers, new mayors, the stock market is soaring, but especially striking is the vibrant and enthusiastic entrepreneurial scene. From university based programs through Tech Transfer offices and venture funds to city wide initiatives like the various incubators that have appeared throughout the five boroughs. The enthusiasm is there and new business, products, and services are appearing. This is especially true with tech start-ups where new data driven devices and applications reign supreme.

The one sector that is lagging behind the rest is the life sciences. Traditionally, New York has never been known for its biotech and health-tech like Boston or California, but it does contain some of the brightest minds in those fields amongst its university and hospital systems. Most of the startup formation you see here is from tenured professors licensing their technologies or startups that have technologies that crossover into the computer sciences and software development space. Startup formation originating from students in the biomedical space is relatively limited compared to many other industries.

Through my experience as a PhD student in the field of molecular and cell biology and as someone who is pursuing a startup in this space I believe the reason we don’t see as much student led startup formation in this space is due to three developmental barriers; physical capital, culture, and regulatory affairs.

First, in order to create and develop cellular and molecular molecules or biological models requires an equipped lab with a lot of physical capital; cell culture hoods, incubators, precise measurement devices for proteins and DNA, etc. Add to this the cost of cell culture reagents, organic and protein chemistry reagents; development of any model or therapeutic is an expensive endeavor. Then include the space requirements to house all these items. To put together a startup in this space requires a lot of capital.

Second, most in this field belong to some investigators laboratory. Moving beyond the investigators research is considered a challenge to the investigator (a real no no within the science community) or a waste of resources from the point of view of the investigator. Hence, the culture in a typical laboratory does not foster an entrepreneurial mindset from within. If a commercial technology is to come to market from such academic labs it will be licensed by the principal investigator many times leaving out students and post docs from the intellectual property.

Lastly, in health-tech anything that has patient involvement attached to it goes through many regulatory hurdles that can take months to years to get approved. While this is easier for patient record keeping systems and medical devices it still requires a lot more development time compared to other products in other spaces. This phenomenon is even more severe in the pharmaceutical drug industry.

This creates a dilemma for newly minted scientists or students who want to create a new therapeutic, device, or model for commercial use as they have no facilities to explore, tied down to the laboratory they are within, and do not reap the benefits of what they create.

These are all challenging problem, and some have begun to be addressed. Personally I have found inspiration and solace from initiatives by the NYCEDC and the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute who have begun to create a culture and resources for scientists to start exploring start-up formation and ideation. This helps a young scientist like myself move away from the closed box thinking of a single idea with in a laboratory. Also, healthcare incubators like Harlem Biospace, and Biobat are giving those who have biotech or health tech start-up ideas the space and additional physical capital to pursue their ideas.

Shamir Dov is a graduate student at NYU Langone Medical Center and an InSITE Fellow. His research is on neuroscience and physiology.

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