Starting a biotech company can be a daunting task, and the perceived difficulties may discourage aspiring entrepreneurs. But fear not – others have been in that position before and can now offer invaluable advice and resources. Arye Lipman, a Los Angeles-based innovation facilitator was kind enough to talk about his personal journey into the entreupreneurial world.
Kostas Vavitsas: Can you tell us about your transition from academic research to industry? What was the biggest challenge?
Arye Lipman: My research career started during my undergraduate studies at UCLA. I was fortunate to have found a lab doing great work in oncology and spent several years building up my technical know-how. I then had an opportunity to join a university spinout, ImaginAb, at its founding. My choice at that time was between continuing on to grad school or taking a risk on industry. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work on a project that could reach patients in a meaningful timeframe – we were building molecular targeting agents for cancer imaging. Founding a biotech company is really hard (we almost died several times), but the key for me was finding managers and mentors that take the time to teach, and also are willing to take a risk on junior scientists.
Kostas: How does BioBuilt help young entrepreneurs and startups?
Arye: BioBuilt was born out of the struggles that my co-founder and I had starting companies in bioscience. Finding capital, lab space, and hiring are supremely difficult, and that’s to say nothing of the science itself. We wanted to build out the infrastructure to help fellow scientists start companies. Today we act as an accelerator and consultancy that supports startups in every facet of their development, providing typical services you might find at a tech accelerator, but with a particular focus on synthetic biology in Southern California. We’ve partnered with a new deeptech incubator in Downtown LA called Mothership, where there is 2500 sq. m of bio labs, chem labs, hardware manufacturing, and office space. We’re also about to launch a new venture fund, which you’ll hear more about in 2019.
Kostas: How do you find the biotechnology and synbio ecosystem of Southern California and LA in particular?
Arye: Our region is not thought of as one of the US’s major biotech hubs, but over the last five years we’ve seen our efforts bring biotech to the forefront of the local innovation community. LA has all the right ingredients: fantastic academic institutions (UCLA, USC, and Caltech) and talented scientists who want to start companies. We started by addressing the issue of affordable off-campus lab space with Lab Launch, a network of shared bio labs around the region, and then moved to building organizations that connect all the pieces of the ecosystem, like BCLA, a student-led group for networking and education. In Q1 2018, life sciences venture funding here surpassed San Diego.
What’s great about LA is that it’s a cultural crossroads and is not a one-industry town anymore. We have food, fashion, materials, aerospace, and energy, which are all industries that will be transformed by synthetic biology in the coming decades. I think this multi-disciplinary approach to innovation will be what sets us apart….try getting a pharma wonk out of his or her box in Boston.
Kostas: Do you think the hype on synthetic biology is justified?
the next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a toy
Arye: I keep coming back to the quote by Roy Amara, a brilliant scientist and futurist: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”
To be honest, we’re only at the beginning of the hype cycle for synthetic biology: your average consumer hasn’t even heard of it. I expect we will continue to see a run-up over the next couple of years, until an inevitable crash. The same will likely happen in biotech public markets. But this early phase is when the strongest companies and enabling technologies will be born. Synbio’s true impact on the economy writ large probably won’t become clear for another decade or so.
A lot of synbio companies look pretty gimmicky, particularly in the consumer space. There have been some spectacular failures (for example “The Glowing Plant”). Many more will crash and burn. But all of these products that look quite silly today are important stepping stones to commercial utility. To quote Andreessen Horowitz partner Chris Dixon paraphrasing Clay Christensen, “the next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a toy.”
Kostas: What is the single most important piece of advice you would give to an early career researcher or student that wants to explore an industry or business career path?
Arye: Be curious. We have access to so much information today, there’s really no excuse not to explore. As a researcher or student you have the opportunity to learn about fields far beyond what you are doing in the lab. Learn how startups work, learn about investing, about patents, about the pharma industry, about regulations, clinical trials, and drug approvals. Follow smart people on Twitter, read blogs and publications. This multi-disciplinary knowledge will open doors for you down the line, whether it be for a future employer, or for building an entrepreneurial career. Knowing the broad context and implications of what you’re doing is key to growth.
Arye Lipman is CTO of BioBuilt. He invests in and mentors synthetic biology and biomanufacturing companies. Arye was previously a director of US growth (life sciences) at Imec, a Belgian semiconductor company, science director at InVentiv Health, and was a founding member of ImaginAb, a UCLA spinout focused on antibody-based imaging agents for oncology therapy management. He currently serves as a board member and advisor for various bioscience startups and accelerator programs in Southern California, including Lab Launch, LARTA, Biocom, The L4b, and Mothership. He holds degrees in Molecular and Cellular Biology from UCLA. Find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.