After years of companies being sold off or growing and relocating, Boulder’s life-sciences sector is showing signs of reaching critical mass.
Companies such as Clovis Oncology Inc. (Nasdaq: CLVS), SomaLogic Inc., Array Biopharma Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRY) and miRagen Therapeutics Inc. (Nasdaq: MGEN) are showing that homegrown businesses can continue to foster momentum and prove to venture capitalists and legacy companies on the East and West coasts that Boulder is a place for biotech, according to those attending BizWest’s CEO Roundtable on Life Sciences at the Jennie Smoly Caruthers Bioscience Building on the University of Colorado Boulder campus Wednesday morning.
“Things have gotten much better,” said Ron Squarer, CEO of Array Biopharma. “Clovis has been here for a while and will maybe be here for a while. Array has a 100-year plan. I don’t plan to make it that long, but we’re not stopping at the products we’re commercializing, we’re doing more research. We’ll see this continue to grow, I hope.”
To grow the critical mass, Squarer said that further collaboration among companies will help. If companies lend their expertise to each other, help place talented people in companies and help startups in the business, it will grow the industry.
Jennifer Jones, vice president of the Colorado Bioscience Association, said the industry is growing, but that companies, especially startups, still struggle with resources.
“We’re seeing it grow, but hear from all members the need to attract capital and talent,” Jones said. “There are lots of discussions about access to capital and how do we address the needs of companies. How do we look at creating a fund or policies? There is a lot of work to do.”
But there are companies who are raising the profile of Colorado’s life-science industry, either by raising funds, commercializing products or going public.
“It’s encouraging, in terms of talent, that we’re able to be known as innovators,” said William Marshall, CEO of miRagen Therapeutics, one of the companies that has gone public.
Marshall said that if Boulder wants to continue to grow its stature in bioscience, one way to do that is to bring in a certain kind of talent, one that won’t leave the area immediately.
“We’ve seen clinical- and late-stage companies see traction in recruiting outstanding executives by hiring a certain phenotype,” he said. “If you look for someone seeking a relentlessly upward pace in their career development, it’s likely they’ll come here, but if they fail, they’ll look for somewhere else to go. But there are lots of executives who have been successful in the past and want to continue to be so, but they’re not concerned with the rapid pace. If something goes wrong, they’re not concerned. That’s how you build that anchor.”
Right now, the bioscience industry sees much of its activity — innovation, talent and capital — gravitating toward two coastal locations, San Francisco and Boston, which leaves Boulder’s bioscience companies not on the coast feeling high and dry.
But CEOs in the region say there are workarounds and plenty of reasons to be in the Boulder Valley.
“There are two centers of gravity: Boston and San Francisco,” said Kyle Lefkoff, founder and general partner of Boulder Ventures Ltd. “Both of those places look like Boulder: They’re regional centers of excellence, and their excellent companies are becoming anchor talents. The best companies in both of those places are being bought, too. Boulder is no different than that.”
Lefkhoff said that extends to Colorado’s perceived capital shortage.
“There’s no lack of access in capital,” he said. “Larry Gold raised $200 million from China for Somalogic. Clovis is running a raise right now. Array has raised a lot. There’s not lack of access, and there are a lot of companies with excellent leadership.”
One possibility, said Tom Hertzberg, head of central U.S. life science and health care for Silicon Valley Bank, is to leverage venture capitalists outside the state who do come to Boulder a few times a year for board meetings. Brynmor Rees, director of the Technology Transfer Office for CU Boulder, agreed, saying it could be a way to provide startups with key introductions, perhaps by gathering key startups together to do presentations for potential investors.
Startups, however, can still struggle with fundraising.
MFB Fertility Inc., a 2-year-old company that helps women track their fertility, first raised money through crowdfunding before creating a product and becoming profitable. To grow, it decided to seek outside investment, but hit a roadblock.
“They said we’re not investable because we don’t have a big enough team,” said Amy Beckley, CEO of MFB Fertility. “Having a product that’s profitable and built ourselves is not enough. It’s a chicken-or-egg situation: How do I get enough money to build a team without getting funding, but they’re not going to fund me until I build a team.”
Tin Tin Su, chief scientific officer and co-founder of SuviCa Inc., said her company has been getting waves of interest, but struggles because of the coastal issue. To counteract that, the company has looked to getting federal funding.
“There’s so much risk involved in this,” Su said. “On top of that, other things count against us like how we’re not on the coast and companies can’t walk over to us.”
Raising capital is possible, however.
“There’s the idea that you need $50 million to start a company,” said Marvin Caruthers, a distinguished professor at CU Boulder and a co-founder of Amgen Inc. and Applied Biosystems Inc. “I never did that. I started on $5 million. You start on a small basis and give other people the opportunity to buy in on a decent price.”
Other opportunities can lie in partnerships, such as the possibility of working with big pharma, said Misha Plam, CEO of AmideBio LLC.
As its critical mass grows, Boulder is poised to lead in some areas of bioscience.
Tom Cech, a distinguished professor at CU and director of the BioFrontiers Institute, shared a story of one company — Arpeggio Biosciences — located in the university’s bioscience building that is leading in RNA research.
“If they were in Boston or San Francisco, they would be sitting of $40 million right now,” Cech said, “because the idea is that good, and the people are that good.”
Looking ahead, Boulder can lead the way in precision medicine — that is, medicine tailored down to the individual based on their specific genetic makeup — thanks to some of the research and innovation done there already.
“It’s thanks a lot to the work of Drs. Cech and Caruthers that we’re uniquely positioned in RNA chemistry and the fundamental technology that unlocks with precision each of these individual drugs,” Lefkoff said. “In 10 years, there’s going to be a proliferation of companies that use that RNA technology.”
Amy Beckley, CEO of MFB Fertility Inc.; Marvin Caruthers, distinguished professor at the University of Colorado Boulder; Tom Cech, distinguished professor at CU Boulder and director of the BioFrontiers Institute; Pawel Fludzinski, senior business adviser for AmideBio LLC; Tom Hertzberg, head of central U.S. life science and health care for Silicon Valley Bank; Jennifer Jones, vice president of the Colorado Bioscience Association; Kyle Lefkoff, founder and general partner of Boulder Ventures Ltd.; William Marshall, CEO of miRagen Therapeutics Inc.; Misha Plam, CEO of AmideBio LLC; Brynmor Rees, director of the Technology Transfer Office at CU Boulder; Chris Shapard, chief of staff for the Biofrontiers Institute; Ron Squarer, CEO of Array Biopharma Inc.; Tin Tin Su, chief scientific officer and co-founder of SuviCa Inc. and Jonathan Vaught, CEO of Front Range Bioscience Inc.
Becky Potts, EKS&H; David Kerr, Berg Hill Greenleaf Ruscitti.