What Boston’s Life Sciences Community is Taking for Granted

10/15/09

I spent an enlightening week in Tokyo earlier this month participating in the Kauffman Fellows Japan Summit. This summit was the brainchild of three visionary Kauffman Fellows who are on a mission to instill entrepreneurship into the Japanese culture. During the three days we heard about the current (dismal) status of venture capital and entrepreneurial success in Japan—especially in the life sciences—in contrast to the unbelievable track record of Japanese engineering and precision manufacturing, as well as the country’s output of patents, which rivals that of the U.S.

Walking around Tokyo and interacting with the many smart minds at the summit, I had to scratch my head—at first blush, the ingredients of great entrepreneurship in life sciences are there. But why is there no soup? One of the most staggering statistics presented at the meeting was that just $200M was invested in local life science companies in 2008, with one pharma spin-out venture taking half the total!

And then it started to sink in how privileged we are in the Boston area, where the next successful or aspiring entrepreneur, scientist, engineer, venture capitalist, IP or venture lawyer, skilled technician, teaching hospital, pharmaceutical company, or device company is just a door away. We are steeped in this culture of entrepreneurship and have been so for many years now. This Boston life science ecotope is as unique as Silicon Valley is for the techies, and it behooves us to make sure we take full advantage of this incredible competitive edge.

People outside of our unique Boston ecotope understand how powerful our “soup” is—Japanese investors searching for attractive opportunities in private equity and venture capital are looking first to the U.S., then checking out Europe and China, only to search their own home market last. How discouraging that must be for the few life sciences pioneers in Japan! I will make it a habit now to remind folks in our industry, as well as local government officials, that we should cherish what we have and work hard to keep things intact and healthy.

Jens Eckstein is a general partner in the life sciences practice of TVM Capital, a venture capital firm based in Boston and Munich. Follow @

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  • http://iBridgeNetwork.org Lesa Mitchell

    There are two other misunderstood facts about the ecosystem. 1. In Boston and CA big pharma/biotech pay attention to the start up community and have created porous boundaries. Everywhere else in US and outside of US big co’s act arrogant and assume no start-ups are smarter then them.
    2. while BusDev and VC’s pay attention to technologies in locations where they land and do business a funny thing happens. There are actually cool technologies laying dormant all over the place. At a conference in the EU a industry exec told me he found a very valuable mouse model on the iBridge Network but they had never worked with or really heard of the university. It was Penn State! The world is flat but our minds and eyes haven’t figured out how to capture all that global knowledge yet.

  • Jens Eckstein

    Good points, Lesa. There is a gap between the old paradigm that ‘all business is local’ and the global reach of technology. Bridging that gap by bringing great technology together with local teams and infrastructure is one of our (VCs) responsibilities.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/ltimmerman/ Luke Timmerman

    Jens–it’s a great idea to draw attention to the special ‘soup’ in Boston life sciences. I’m based in Seattle, but cover Boston life sciences, have noticed there is an absolute industrial conveyer belt for new life sciences company creation in Boston. It is special.

    The basic formula, as I see it, is to spin out a potentially disruptive technology from one of the great Boston academic institutions, round up some stars the scientific advisory board, get a handful of deep pocketed VCs who put in $20m or more into a Series A to give it a shot, and recruit a seasoned executive from a local Big Biotech or Big Pharma as the CEO. Even in the downturn, this kind of thing has happened fairly often this year in Boston, but not nearly so much in Seattle or San Diego.