9 Takeaways from Boston’s Life Science Disruptors

10/4/13Follow @benthefidler

Building a biotech is (really) hard. But if you’re doing to do it, be yourself. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Wear sneakers if you feel like it. Near-death experiences happen to everyone along the way—embrace them and learn. And if your initial hunch is that the company’s founding idea is insane, it’s probably worth pursuing.

These were some of the lasting impressions from the three stars of our latest biotech event, “Boston’s Life Science Disruptors.” The audience who joined us on Wednesday at the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research got quite a treat—the founders and lead investors of Genocea Biosciences, Moderna Therapeutics, and Bluebird Bio (NASDAQ: BLUE) gave all of us an in-depth look at the ups and downs they’ve all faced trying to make their way in a tough industry with exceedingly long investment timelines and a high failure rate. None of these companies have truly made it yet, so to speak, so this wasn’t so much about trumpeting their successes—it was about the challenge of taking a transformative vision, getting people onboard to follow you, and making it a reality. These are the kinds of stories you won’t hear on an earnings call.

Big thanks to our speakers: Darren Higgins and Kevin Bitterman for Genocea, Stephane Bancel and Noubar Afeyan for Moderna, and Neil Exter and Nick Leschly for Bluebird (pictured above, left to right). Thanks also to Novartis, our event host, and our sponsors: BDO, Cubist Pharmaceuticals, Health Advances, Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky & Popeo, and the Kauffman Foundation.

And of course a special thank you to KeithSpiroPhoto, courtesy of Kendall PRess, for the photos. We’ll have more of those in a slideshow on Monday.

With that, here are some of my takeaways from a really informative night:

“This is something he had put together in his lab, essentially by himself, without any [National Institutes of Health] funding because he couldn’t get anyone to fund his crazy idea.” Harvard University professor Darren Higgins had a tough time convincing people to invest in his vision for a new wave of vaccines—a quick-hit production platform designed to create vaccines that trigger T cells to fight foreign invaders, something that no approved vaccine can do. Higgins, in fact, says that in pitching the idea to potential investors many years ago he received “anywhere from measured apathy to complete disdain for wasting someone’s time.” Apparently this revelation even took Kevin Bitterman, a principal at Polaris Partners, by surprise: While Polaris was the firm that made a seed investment in Genocea, it came, he joked, “I guess after a lot of people said no—I didn’t really know that.”

“We had three different opportunities to merge with an adjuvant company.” Vaccines are made up of an antigen that tells the immune system what kind of things to attack, and they are usually combined with an immune-boosting compound known as an adjuvant. Bitterman says that Genocea had offers to merge with … Next Page »

Ben Fidler is Xconomy's Deputy Biotechnology Editor. You can e-mail him at bfidler@xconomy.com Follow @benthefidler

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