Varmus, Sato on Steering De Blasio’s $500M Plan to Grow NY Biotech

Xconomy New York — 

The idea that New York City could become a biotech powerhouse dates back to the late 1990s. It’s been a slow, tedious process, and it’s nowhere near complete, but from near and far, Harold Varmus and Vicki Sato have been watching the gears begin to turn.

Varmus, who earned a Nobel prize for his work in cancer research, has since 1993 mixed stints leading the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute in Washington, D.C., with top jobs at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and now, Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. Born in Oceanside, NY, Varmus has an affinity for the city and bristles at the idea that it can’t make biotech work the way it has in Boston, San Francisco, or San Diego.

“People just don’t think of New York when they think about biotech,” he says. “[They] sometimes fail to appreciate that New York is ultimately among the top three centers for biomedical research in the country, and that’s often obscured by a lot of other things.”

Sato, one of the senior statespeople of Boston biotech circles has taken a different track. Currently a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, she held a number of top posts at Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB) and later Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX), including serving as Vertex’s president for five years. After leaving Vertex in 2005, she joined Harvard, and the boards of many biotechs across the country as well. She saw the rise of Kendall Square, the epicenter of Boston’s buzzing biotech beehive, up close. And over the past few years, she’s taken an interest in New York.

Sato, who currently splits time between homes in Boston and Manhattan, says she will retire from Harvard next summer and move to New York full time.

“I’ve been watching New York recognize that this is a big opportunity for them,” she says. “It’s fun for me and exciting to be able to play a part.”

Indeed, New York city is now leaning on both Sato and Varmus. Earlier this month, New York city mayor Bill De Blasio announced “LifeSci NY,” an ambitious, 10-year plan to pump $500 million into the city’s life sciences industry. Varmus and Sato are co-chairing an advisory council that will guide the sprawling effort, which includes a series of targeted investments, tax incentives, startup and entrepreneurial support mechanisms, and the building of several incubators and a hub called the “Applied Life Science Campus.”

Still, an announcement is just an announcement, and government initiatives and wads of cash are not enough on their own to effect change. “It’s hard to know whether this is going to work,” Varmus says.

But Varmus has experience trying to move New York biotech forward. As the president of Sloan-Kettering from 2000 to 2010, he worked with a group including academics including then Columbia University dean Gerald Fischbach to try to draw biotechs to the city. The problem, as it’s always been in New York, was finding space for commercial research. The fruit of their efforts was the Alexandria Center for Life Science, which opened in 2010 and was built on what had been a contaminated laundry site on the East Side of Manhattan. Though too expensive to be the startup haven it was first envisioned as, the Alexandria Center so far houses a mix of pharma outposts and young, well-financed biotechs and is currently a major mark of the city’s commercial biotech aspirations. (Next year, a new incubator space for startup biotechs called “LaunchLabs” will open there as well.)

Varmus also played a key early role helping form the New York Genome Center, a multi-institutional hub for genomics research in the mold of Cambridge, MA’s Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. He cites the existence of NYGC and other institutional consortiums in New York—the New York Structural Biology Center, the Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute among them—as evidence that it’s wrong to say, as some do, that New York’s myriad academic institutions and research centers only war with one another.

Collaboration has been key to driving New York biotech forward, particularly since 2010 when Varmus left Sloan-Kettering to direct the NCI in Washington, D.C. The NYGC, Tri-DRI, and its biotech startup offshoot Bridge Medicines all opened. The New York City Economic Development Corp. teamed with several pharma companies, Arch Venture Partners, and Flagship Ventures to form a $150 million biotech fund that is still untapped. Seattle company creator Accelerator Corp. drew on a large consortium of investors to open up a New York branch in 2014 to start biotechs.

Yet in the grand scheme of things, these are small moves. Though it is consistently near the top every year in NIH funding, New York remains far behind the top hubs in VC investments for life science companies. And lack of wet lab space and affordable living space—particularly for young people just starting out—remain significant challenges.

Add it all up and it’s created a perception barrier. Says Sarah Bettigole, a young biotech entrepreneur who is the … Next Page »

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