Bruce Booth, a LifeSciVC Shining Some Much-Needed Light on Biotech

2/27/12Follow @xconomy

Techies who want to learn about high-tech venture capital learn quickly they must read blogs by guys like Fred Wilson and Brad Feld. They are insiders who speak with clear, consistent, and insightful voices about an otherwise opaque little corner of the investing world.

Nobody has ever performed this kind of service for biotech venture capital, but that’s started to change in the past year, thanks to a partner at Atlas Venture named Bruce Booth.

Ever wonder how often little biotech companies actually collect the lucrative “earnout” provisions they negotiate for when getting acquired? Curious about how much money certain biotech VC firms stand to make when their portfolio companies get acquired? Or are you simply interested in learning more about how certain biotech investors think?

Booth, 37, has essentially become a go-to source for questions like this over the past year at his “LifeSciVC” blog. It’s full of hearty reading material for anybody who makes a living in biotech startups, life science venture capital, or pharmaceutical business development. A Pennsylvania native who trained in molecular immunology at Oxford, Booth now brands himself a “recovering scientist turned early-stage VC, a biotech optimist fighting gravity.” Through more than 50 in-depth posts over the past year, he has shown that he loves nothing more than tackling industry dogma with data-driven analysis, heavy on the charts and graphs.

Bruce Booth of Atlas Venture

It may sound boring, but Booth injects enough personality into his writing to make clear this isn’t just another trip down boring-industry-white-paper lane. One post from July is a good example, which he headlined “Life Sciences: The Rodney Dangerfield of Venture Capital.” Along with co-author Bijan Salehizadeh (another occasional life science investing blogger), Booth tried to show with data why biotech investing deserves more respect than it gets.

I’ll admit that one year ago I had never heard of Booth, and amid the daily frenzy of publishing Xconomy, it’s hard for me to find time to read everything he writes. But this column cannot be ignored, because it so regularly delivers fresh perspective that gets widely shared and debated on Twitter.

And plenty of biotech pros have made this one of their regular reads.

“His column is a ray of smart sunshine cutting through the gloom, doom and confounding info that daily biotech news can sometimes be,” says Gautam Kollu, the vice president of marketing at South San Francisco-based Exelixis. “What I like about his posts is the thought-provoking analysis that challenges conventional wisdom, and the access to data that has been very hard to come by in the past.”

Booth says his tech-savvy Atlas partner, Fred Destin, spent a year urging him to to try his hand at blogging before he dove in last March. The motivation, he says, was to fill a void in the information marketplace. “When you think of the startup ecosystem, 25 percent of the investment goes into life science, but we are a tiny, less-than-1-percent fraction of the blogosphere about early-stage startups.”

Since nobody had really dove in to do a regular biotech VC column, he wondered if readers would care. He had heard that any blog worth its salt needs to deliver fresh content on a regular basis, and he wasn’t sure he had the time. Then there was the age-old fear of columnists everywhere, nagging in the back of his mind: “What if I run out of good ideas to write about?”

That hasn’t turned out to be a problem. Like any columnist—myself included—Booth says he keeps a file of at least three or four column ideas that he can jump on to write about any given week. He says he figured he’d spend about one or two hours a week researching and writing his posts, but it has actually been closer to four hours a week. He doesn’t have anybody edit the posts before he publishes, although he notes that his dad reads it, and “he never comments on content, but he finds every grammar and punctuation mistake, and asks that I make the changes.”

Booth did a little bit of writing for his high school paper, and has written in top journals like Nature Biotechnology, but says “I never fancied myself as a prolific writer.” Like a lot of biotech executives or investors, he learned about writing the technical way for peer-reviewed journals, not the conversational way that’s currently fashionable for online publications.

Feedback on the LifeSciVC column has been surprisingly positive, Booth says. Lately he has been averaging about 1,500 unique visitors a week for his column, and many more see the cross-posted version on Forbes.com (although Forbes doesn’t tell him exactly how many more). On his own blog, Booth can see via Google Analytics that his readers aren’t just skimming headlines, but they engage for extended periods of time with his posts. And he has an e-mail subscription list with a lot of addresses of people at prominent organizations in biotech, venture capital, and the pharmaceutical companies. “It certainly has exceeded my expectation in level of engagement. I get a lot of e-mails from people who want to make a comment or challenge me,” Booth says.

So what’s in it for him? Writing LifeSciVC has raised his profile and expanded his professional network far better than just getting active on LinkedIn, or swapping business cards at conferences, Booth says. It has prompted more people to send him biotech business plans, although he can’t say any of that has yet led to an Atlas investment. Partly that’s because Atlas cultivates long-term relationships with entrepreneurs and scientists. But Booth says it’s “entirely conceivable” that the next Bob Langer might be reading the blog some day and think to call him with a great idea.

Beyond whatever benefits accrue to him or his firm, I believe Booth is performing a much-needed public service to the biotech industry. The tech world already benefits from the efforts of Wilson, Feld, and many other entrepreneurs and investors who contribute to that thriving marketplace of ideas. While there’s no shortage of ways to get your daily biotech headlines, really shrewd analysis and sharing of insights is harder to find, at least out on the open Internet.

Laura Strong, president of Madison, WI-based Quintessence Biosciences, summed it up quite well: “In the tech industry, it seems the critical mass of experience sharing online has led to open discussions about what business models work well. Having a platform for respected insiders like Bruce (and John LaMattina) to talk about what is working (and not working) in the industry will hopefully hasten the learning process in building successful biotech businesses.”

Now that’s a good reason for more entrepreneurs and investors like Booth to step up and join the conversation online. If more people do, I believe it will make the industry stronger, more vibrant and more fun. So to Bruce Booth, keep up the good work. And to all the other potential Bruce Booths out there, I look forward to reading what you have to say.

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