Five Questions for the Future of Biotech in San Diego, Part 2

Xconomy San Diego — 

Yesterday, we ran a couple of in-depth interviews about the future of biotech with two San Diego CEOs—Optimer Pharmaceuticals CEO Michael Chang and Phenomix CEO Laura Shawver. I asked them the same five questions about the outlook of the industry that I asked leaders in Boston, so you can compare the bi-coastal views of the year ahead. In a nutshell, I’d say people are being realistic about tough times ahead, but certainly aren’t ready to give up and cry in their beer.

Today’s interviews are with a large San Diego-area lab supplier (Life Technologies) and from a prominent venture investor in San Diego companies (Venrock Associates). Here are the highlights:

Mark Stevenson, president, Carlsbad, CA-based Life Technologies

Xconomy: What was the single most valuable lesson you learned from the last big biotech bust (the genomics-driven crash of 2001 and 2002), and how will having those battle wounds help you carry on today?

Mark Stevenson: What happens is a natural hyping of the potential. What we saw was a hype over the sequencing of the human genome, and what would come of it. The reality that you learn from those lessons is that it’s a matter of timing. The promise of the sequence and personalized medicine is absolutely there, but with the complexity of biology, we often make mistaken estimates of the time to get there. That was the biggest lesson, to be a bit more sensitive to the timing it takes to realize the promise.

The lesson for us is really not to lose the promise of biotech, but to realize the timing to achieve it and execute means we have to be careful with our resources to realize that promise.

X: Every year, bankers like to say acquisitions and partnerships between biotech and pharma companies are going to pick up because pharma needs innovative new drugs, and biotechs need cash to develop them. Do you really see this trend truly accelerating this year, and if so, why?

MS: We do. Our business is a supplier to the academic and pharmaceutical industry. What we’ve seen in our own combination of the Invitrogen and Applied Biosystems is a consolidation that’s happening in the industry. We believe there will continue to be startup and small companies getting formed, but in the mid-space there will continue to be a consolidation of companies, like you’ve seen with Invitrogen and Applied Biosystems.

X: What kind of companies, technologies, and people will be resilient enough to survive this downturn?

MS: A couple things come to mind from us. One is a very agile nature and ability to adapt to changes, because it is an uncertain future. We want to be very nimble in how we go forward. The second is an ability to continue to invest in innovation. As we look at science that is transformative for us, we want to continue to invest in that area. Third, is to really focus on strategic priorities. So we spent a lot of time in the new company to say during this time, we are going to be very clear what our priorities are. We set up within the company a regular mechanism to review the priorities. We have a 100-day plan that we review very rigorously to make sure we’re focused on execution.

X: Who would make a good FDA commissioner, and why?

That’s probably one we’d skip over.

X: What’s the most surprising impact of the past year’s economic turmoil on your plans for this year?

MS: It’s well-publicized that it may happen, but we’re hopeful that this might be an opportunity to re-structure how we think about investment at the NIH. In real terms, the NIH is stagnant. We are hopeful the new administration will make two significant changes. One is to put more dollars into NIH for biomedical research. The second is to change the restrictions on stem cells. Both of those things will stimulate research, and stimulate really the promise of new technology that will transform how we think about health care and how medicine is done. It will be a lot more useful than just building bridges.

Bryan Roberts, partner, Venrock Associates

Xconomy: What was the single most valuable lesson you learned from the last big biotech bust (the genomics-driven crash of 2001 and 2002), and how will having those battle wounds help you carry on today?

Bryan Roberts: For me, it is almost a corollary about how you shouldn’t believe your own BS. … Next Page »

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