It’s not new to say that bringing modern entrepreneurship to the sciences is the next big frontier for an era of startup fervor. Baltimore has the scientists. But it needs more founders and CEOs to make the region’s tech transfer sing.
Don’t misinterpret. There are dozens of examples of active businesses based on research commercialized from regional universities — and several standouts. It’s just that if you look at any big ecosystem for the business of advanced research, you need both science and venture dollars in equal measure. And it’s clear what Baltimore needs more of.
“Finding people who know good science in Maryland is easy,” said Ken Malone, the investor, founder and irreverent local leader with a taste for the business of science. “Finding someone who knows how to run a startup company with $50 in a bank? Well, that’s a different story.”
It’s really a story of Maryland’s strengths. The advanced research from places like Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland is longstanding. By contrast, today’s generation of founders with an understanding of today’s startup climate is a far smaller population.
That’s why the region’s wonky tech transfer community gets all weak in the knees for stories like that of Nanobernetics, a cancer test business founded by a pair of UM medical students.
“Ph.D.s have the skill set to lead a company — detail-orientated, capable, passionate,” said Camilo Vanegas, one half of the Nanobernetics founding team.
“There is a difference between a ‘three decimal point researcher’ and a ‘I’m just three billion dollars off my projections’ entrepreneur,” said Nina Lamba from the Maryland Department of Commerce’s Office of BioHealth Technologies. She’s worked in the scientific private sector. “I do see an awakening happening here.”
That awakening can manifest itself in lots of different ways: from universities getting comfortable with (even cheerleading) their graduate students taking an entrepreneurial plunge to pairing the business-minded with scientific research, as materials company Pixelligent CEO Craig Bandes characterizes his pathway.
Baltimore needs more convergence between the big and adapting academic and sciences sector with the quickly advancing startup environment, said Jane Shaab, the warm and excitable director of the University of Maryland’s BioPark. These and other leaders had this discussion at the BioPark, during a roundtable held by Technical.ly for the Sciences Conference during our Baltimore Innovation Week presented by 14 West.
Without that convergence, Maryland might always underperform for its assets.
Therapeutics and many capital-intensive medical-device businesses are seen by many in the conversation as the white whale that is still too big to be grown here in the Chesapeake. When Hopkins-pharma-spinout Graybug Vision was raising what became its $44.5 million Series B funding, it was clear that it couldn’t be done locally, said Rana Quraishi, director of new ventures at the University of Maryland. TEDCO is aiming to grow that portfolio, but when it comes down to it, there is a vast array of companies in the sciences. At first glance, you can lose sight of why prosthetics company Infinite Biomedical Technologies CEO Rahul Kaliki should know Smitha Gopal, the CEO of freshly rebranded health IT company Rendia.
“It’s about recruiting talent and bringing the research we have to market,” said Shaab, calling for united vision. “We need to pick a direction and go to it.”
There is no shortage of bright lights to point to in the growth of local startups based on science — say, Root3 Labs expanding to a production facility in Randallstown, Sisu Global Health raising a $1 million round or Sonify Biosciences founder Miriam Boer preparing to raise Series A fundraising after a minor research breakthrough. There, too, are new efforts around money, after raising its fifth fund in 2014 to focus more on Maryland, there’s hope there will be more from sciences-prone private equity firm Camden Partners.
The Maryland Bio Tax Credit could be better, but “it’s better than many others,” said David Wise, an adviser to the Abell Foundation.
“We’ve seen these pieces continue to converge,” said Quraishi, of the UM venture arm. “We just need so much more.”