Tom Maniatis, Molecular Biology Pioneer, Seeks to Help Build a Kendall Square in NYC

4/5/11Follow @xconomy

Tom Maniatis doesn’t fit the profile of a typical New York economic booster, who is usually a politician or big-time businessman. Maniatis is one of the pioneers of modern molecular biology, who wrote a definitive how-to manual on genetic engineering in the early 1980s. He spent 30 years at Harvard University and co-founded one of the biotechnology industry’s trailblazing companies, Genetics Institute. Along the way, he became one of the mover/shakers in the world’s highest-density-per-square-foot cluster of biotech brainpower and entrepreneurial talent—Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA.

Now, at 68, Maniatis is attempting something almost as ambitious as what he did in his younger days. For the past year, since Maniatis moved his lab to Columbia University, he has made it part of his mission to help create a more vibrant biotech ecosystem in New York. He wants to help create a biotech beehive like the one a few hours away he knows so well.

“What’s missing in New York is the sense of entrepreneurial activity,” Maniatis says. “It just didn’t happen here.”

New York has no trouble laying claim to being a world capital of finance, media, entertainment, and fashion, but it has never really harnessed its potential to become a dominant biotech cluster, like Boston or San Francisco. Despite high-profile initiatives over the years, New York still hasn’t created a Kendall Square-like hotspot to commercialize inventions from the great research centers like Columbia, Rockefeller University, New York University, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Comparing regional hubs is always tricky, and depends on which way you prefer to keep score (patents, total employment, sales, market cap, etc.). But consider this: the New York Biotech Association lists 250 members, while the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council has 600.

For a place full of strivers like New York, this has long left a sour taste in many mouths. Maniatis has noticed it in his first year in the Big Apple.

“There’s a lot of frustration in New York,” Maniatis says. “There’s a lot of IP here and it all ends up going to San Francisco, San Diego, and Boston.”

This wasn’t exactly news to Maniatis, so I had to ask, why move? He arrived in New York, like so many others, with a personal dream, he says. His research has shifted over the years from the basic mechanisms of genetics—expression, transcription, splicing—into specific areas of gene expression in the brain. He’s become particularly interested in the mechanics of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the neurodegenerative condition otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Columbia has a world-class neuroscience department—including Nobel laureates Richard Axel and Eric Kandel—so Maniatis says it struck him as the best place for him to carry out his new line of work.

Maniatis has long kept his fingers in the Boston biotech startup community, most recently as a founding scientific advisor and member of the board at Cambridge, MA-based Acceleron Pharma, and as a board member of Constellation Pharmaceuticals. Maniatis also stays up to speed on hot startup ideas through his work as a science partner at The Column Group. This is one of a handful of venture firms that bets exclusively on “big idea” biotech startups, and it includes some other very big names—including David Baltimore, Rick Klausner, David Goeddel, Michael Brown, and Joseph Goldstein.

It didn’t take long for Maniatis to survey the landscape and form some fast impressions of New York’s biotech strengths and weaknesses. Science in the city, Maniatis says, struck him … Next Page »

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