With hundreds of biotechnology companies and thousands of people employed in life sciences, San Diego has a large, informal network of people with deep knowledge across a wide range of skills. The Torrey Pines mesa, among the densest biotech clusters in the world, “acts like one big biotech incubator,” says Scott Thacher, CEO of Orphagen Pharmaceuticals, a San Diego startup working to identify drug targets for a range of autoimmune diseases and metabolic conditions.
Thacher tapped into the network seven years ago when he left Allergan to launch Orphagen. Although he tried to “get something going” in Orange County, CA, where Allergan is located, Thacher found himself gravitating south to San Diego. Following one lead after another, he located equipment, lab space, skilled workers and, perhaps most important, experienced entrepreneurs willing to provide help and advice.
Now Thacher and the founders of other life sciences startups are moving to formalize and expand their networks. They have formed the San Diego Entrepreneurs Exchange, an organization focused on the needs of very early-stage startups and new entrepreneurs. Besides Thacher, who is president of the new organization, the SDEE executive team includes David Schwarz, president of Advanced Cellular Dynamics; Ruo Steensma, president of Steensma Consulting; Deborah Slee, a medicinal chemist and independent consultant; and David LaRocca, CEO of Mandala Biosciences.
Thacher sees the exchange as a place where entrepreneurs—particularly those whose companies lack VC support—can get information and advice. The organization plans to sponsor regular networking and educational events to help new entrepreneurs acquire the skills they need to get funding and build their businesses.
Thacher says the idea came to him recently when he was talking with other CEOs about Small Business Research Innovation Grants (SBIR). The grants are invaluable to companies that are too early stage to attract venture capital, Thacher says. Venture-backed companies generally are not eligible for the grants, but there are proposals in Congress to ease that restriction. Such a change would intensify the competition for funds, Thacher says.
This is an issue that places very early-stage firms at odds with venture-backed startups. “The problem is that to a larger firm, SBIR funding is a nice add-on, whereas for Orphagen, we would not be here without it,” he says.
SDEE has a broader mandate than SBIR funding. “I see it as strengthening the wagon train,” says Scott Struthers, an SDEE member and founder of Crinetics Pharmaceuticals, a San Diego-based startup working on drugs for endocrine diseases. Like the pioneers who settled the West, “we are separate but we are traveling together,” Struthers says. “If someone needs water or has a wheel break, we help each other.”
The kickoff meeting begins at 5 p.m. on March 10 at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute auditorium. Panelists Richard Lin, CEO of Explora Biolabs; Gonul Velicelebi, CEO of CalciMedica; Jiwu Wang, CEO of Allele Biotech; and Douglas Lappi, president of Advanced Targeting Systems, will discuss their startup experiences.