How can Philly help its life sciences startups ‘bridge the gap’?

That was the crux of the discussion at this year's life sciences roundtable at Philly Tech Week 2017 presented by Comcast.

IBX's Tom Olenzak (far left) at our roundtable discussion.

(Photo by Roberto Torres)

Much like a doctor would, every year we like to do a checkup on the life sciences sector.

And during Philly Tech Week 2017 presented by Comcast, we asked a group of industry stakeholders: are we still seeing that “solid growth” we heard about last year.

Ask someone like the University of Pennsylvania’s Laurie Actman and she’ll say the momentum is still there for the sector. Granted, from her chair, it’s been a busy year indeed: the Pennovation Center opened up shop, housing companies like BioBots, FeverSmart and XEED to its space, alongside Penn-focused VC firm Red & Blue Ventures.

Actman described student entrepreneurship around life sciences as a field that’s “very exciting and energized.”

But for Bioadvance CEO Barbara Schilberg, who recently led a $1 million seed round in buzzy startup Keriton, the concern in the space is getting companies past the seed stage. “The thing to watch is if they can get to a Series A,” Schillberg said. “That’s going to be the thing to watch.”

IBX’s Tom Olenzak also echoed that concern, pointing at a gap between companies like InstaMed (a healthcare payment company which raised a $50 million round last year) and exciting companies like Dreamit Health alumni, a program that IBX has been sponsoring for five years now. “It seems like the space seems to lack companies at the $5 to $20 million level, but it may just be a time issue,” Olenzak ventured.


Access to capital was subject to deep discussion. To get an entrepreneur’s take, HealthVerity founder Andrew Goldberg chimed in, as the health IT company recently raised a $10 million round with not one local backer.

“We had to leave Philly to find the capital,” Goldberg said. He mentioned going to Chicago’s MATTER incubator as a centralized location for venture capitalists and enterprises to connect with startups (perhaps that’s what Benjamin’s Desk’s latest joint venture is aiming to be?).

Speaking of founders, Keriton founder Vidur Bhatnagar spoke up about his path from newcomer to the city to a startup founder with venture capital behind his idea.

“It’s a relationship town,” Bhatnagar said. “Starting a company has been a great journey, a great Philly journey. I went from meeting Laurie [Actman] to connecting with Dreamit and then to Bioadvance.”

Comcast’s Marc Siry offered a line to wrap up the discussion. “The infrastructure is there and pieces of it are evolving, despite some institutional inertia,” Siry said. “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

A look at our past coverage on health IT coverage will say that there has been a relatively steady stream of both interesting ideas being developed and decent support from venture capital to make them happen. Bridging the gap between startup and large company is where the challenge will lie.

2017, as the stakeholders themselves put it, has the potential to be the year that Philly’s profile as a world-class life sciences hub is lifted up and solidified.

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