Tom Cirrito was dining out at a Mexican restaurant in midtown Manhattan over a decade ago when he overheard something that piqued his interest. At a table next to him, someone was talking about biotech. Cirrito, then an analyst at Piper Jaffray, was intrigued. He butted in, and his life changed.
His restaurant neighbor was Ivan Bergstein, the CEO of a biotech startup called Stemline Therapeutics. And starting with that conversation, Cirrito and Bergstein formed a relationship that helped build Stemline. Cirrito became the company’s second employee, and worked there for almost a decade. Stemline (NASDAQ: STML) is now a publicly traded developer of stem cell cancer drugs.
“My whole career is basically running into the right guy at the right time, and taking advantage of the situation and turning it into something I never would’ve anticipated,” Cirrito said.
That story is emblematic of New York biotech. Cirrito was sharing it at NewYorkBio’s annual gathering in Manhattan, during a talk about what it takes to build a biotech in the big city. A theme emerged that permeated the meeting, which brought together the entrepreneurs, investors, government agencies, and others on the front lines of life sciences in New York: this is a boostrapping biotech community, and it has to be to claw its way forward. New York isn’t an established life sciences hub like Cambridge, San Diego, or San Francisco, which all churn out venture-funded biotech startups by the day.
“Here, it’s very different,” Cirrito said. “There’s a lot more bootstrapping. It’s a lot more—I don’t want to say ‘rough and tumble,’ though I am from Queens—but it’s very much about the networking.”
There were other examples. Kate Rochlin, for instance, was getting her PhD at Weill Cornell Medical College and was interested in entrepreneurship, but didn’t have a project she could turn into a company. She started attending local networking and pitch events for startups, heard a pitch she liked, and started “stalking” the scientific founder of the fledgling company. That got her in talks with a few executives, and she helped form a startup called Immunovent, which went through the Entrepreneurship Lab NYC program and is now in the Harlem Biospace incubator developing an allergy diagnostic. (Incidentally, Rochlin along the way also met Cirrito, who is now an Immunovent advisor, not to mention the founder of another New York startup, Filament Biosolutions.)
“Immunovent is kind of a poster child for a lot of these programs that New York has to offer,” she said.
Then there’s the collaborative mindset—something New York’s institutions weren’t known for in the past. As Accelerator Corp.’s David Schubert said, it was “very hard to do business here from a venture perspective” because the institutions “were not known for being cooperative.” That’s reflected in … Next Page »
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