New York is a global center of life sciences, but, until recently, synthetic biology startups clustered in Boston and San Francisco. I had a chance to talk with John Murray, who runs the Life Sciences NYC meetup group, to hear why New York is emerging as a hub of biotech innovation.
Kostas Vavitsas: New York has always been a major center for life sciences, but historically it has not launched many synthetic biology startups. Yet you see the startup scene taking off now. Why?
John Murray: In the last decade, several public and private efforts have aimed to make New York the hub of global biotech. The most ambitious step came in December 2016, when the city launched a $500 million commercial life sciences initiative. It included a package of tax incentives, early stage venture capital, and provisions for commercial lab space and accelerators, among other things. The city is focusing its resources on these specific areas because they were always the main bottlenecks to biotech in NYC.
At the same time, biotech companies are becoming easier and cheaper to start, not only in New York but everywhere. The technology stack is becoming more accessible to small companies, so there are more biotech startups today than ten years ago.
Kostas: Aside from local government programs, are there other factors that make New York City attractive for biotech?
John: Talent and resources are the big attractions. New York City has more than 100 research foundations and nine academic medical centers, plus world-class universities and health care service providers. It is close to major pharmaceutical and technology companies too, so synthetic biology startups are well-positioned to form strategic partnerships.
Accelerators and incubators are becoming increasingly important as well, and they help foster an entrepreneurial culture in the city’s life science community. JLabs, Harlem Biospace, SUNY Downstate Medical Center, BioLabs@NYULangone, and Alexandria LaunchLabs all operate in New York, and IndieBio is coming soon.
Kostas: You recently started the Life Sciences NYC meetup group. What role does it play in the ecosystem?
John: Life Sciences NYC is a gathering place for researchers, entrepreneurs and investors who are passionate about advancing the commercial and humanitarian applications of biology. Our group is open to everyone, and we don’t charge admission to our events. We get together about once a month to hear presentations by leaders in life sciences and to talk informally.
An important lesson from Silicon Valley is that informal communication helps drive innovation. This is especially true in life sciences because the field is becoming so interdisciplinary. There’s real value in talking with people in related disciplines. We give synthetic biologists a chance to talk with machine learning specialists, for example, or postdocs a chance to meet startup founders.
Kostas: How has the meetup been received?
John: The reception has been wonderful. Everyone tells me our group addresses a real need in the life science community. People are passionate about life sciences, as you know, so it’s great to have a forum where we can talk and explore ideas together.
We’ve been fortunate to have outstanding speakers for our events too, and I’m very grateful to them. They have made it much easier for the group to gain traction.
Kostas: Have there been any surprises, either good or bad?
John: Nothing too serious. Organizing the meetup is like managing a startup. I expect the unexpected. It’s an ongoing experiment to find what works best in terms of our topics of discussion, the format of the meetings and so forth. I have my own ideas about these things, but my ideas are probably mostly wrong! So I always look to other people for advice and feedback. With more people involved, we have more good ideas.
Kostas: Apart from running Life Sciences NYC, what is your interest in synthetic biology?
John: My main interests are synthetic biology investments and business strategies.
My background is in hedge fund management. I was a senior hedge fund manager for Goldman Sachs and then co-founded a data-driven fund, where I was the CEO. I started focusing on synthetic biology two years ago.
I’m very bullish on synthetic biology as the basis for new companies and new industries. I think people generally underestimate how quickly the technology will advance and the impact it will have on the economy. As biology becomes more quantitative, the pace of progress is going to accelerate, and we are only beginning to understand what the possibilities are.
John Murray is a New York-based investor and consultant. You can find him on LinkedIn.