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“Raw Potential” And Three Other Takeaways from NY’s Life Science Disruptors

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he wanted to start a company in New York, not somewhere like Boston or San Francisco. And one of the biggest reasons was he didn’t want to be “just a tag-along person for a series of people who have started a whole series of other companies.”

“It’s just extraordinarily exciting to be at the ground floor of the biotech community,” he said. “You have the opportunity to come in and perhaps make an impact on the first steps of biotech in the city. I don’t think there are that many opportunities in other places to do that in this country.”

Breaking down silos, and going where the money is. Lewis Cantley is perhaps best known for work he did at Harvard Medical School discovering a key enzyme implicated in cancer, and later starting several companies—among them Agios Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: AGIO). But Cantley moved from Harvard to Weill Cornell in 2012—ultimately leading to the formation of Petra in January—and he cited two reasons. The first, he said, was that there was “elasticity” at Weill Cornell. He could “take an institution that was already fantastic but mold it” in a way that would help him rapidly translate discoveries into therapies. That helped “break down some of the silos that I found were very difficult in Boston with all the long held traditions at all the hospitals there,” he said.

The second reason? New York has an abundance of philanthropy money, which is critical at a time when it’s harder to get grant money. “Why do you rob banks? Well, that’s where the money is,” he joked.

The discrepancy between potential and success. Doug Cole was initially skeptical when Rockefeller president Marc Tessier-Lavigne asked if his firm was interested in managing the New York City Economic Development Corp.’s life sciences fund. Flagship’s got enough going on in Cambridge, and New York’s biotech challenges are well documented. For one, Cole noted, the area hasn’t “fully learned how to take advantage” of its financial might. There are only a few high-profile startups. There aren’t many “reference successes,” like a Biogen in Boston or a Genentech in San Francisco. But a couple of things piqued his interest nonetheless.

First, the presence of folks like Cantley, Tessier-Lavigne, Columbia professor Tom Maniatis, and Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center president Craig Thompson, who came from elsewhere, congregated in New York, and “demand respect and attention.” There also “appeared to be an incipient, evolving culture of interest in biotechnology in New York” and a commitment to making it work, including the support of the mayor’s office. That, combined with its high standing in a bevy of other statistics—among them yearly NIH funding and the large number of hospital beds—made it worth Flagship’s time. (The firm is managing a large portion of the NYCEDC’s $150 million fund, though it hasn’t announced a deal as of yet.)

“There’s an enormous amount of raw potential here,” Cole said. “The discrepancy between the potential and success is greater in New York than any city in the U.S. by far, and I think any city in the world. Which is another way of saying that the opportunity here exceeds the opportunity in any other place in the world.”

Kallyope’s “blank canvas.” Adam Goulburn wanted to start a microbiome company. But when he walked into Charles Zuker’s lab at Columbia some three years ago, he ended up with a much different project. While Zuker told him microbiome research was poised to change “how we think about human physiology,” he also told Goulburn “everyone’s looking in the wrong direction.” Namely, there wasn’t a whole lot of attention on the gut-brain axis—a sort of communication hub between the cells in our guts and the central nervous system. As Zuker said, there are millions of neurons in the gut, “the equivalent of three mouse brains.” Understanding how those cells talk to the brain might unlock a whole new way to treat a slew of diseases.

“It’s a completely unexplored territory, a complete blank canvas, and it’s ours for the taking,” Zuker told Goulburn.

Lux teamed with Polaris Partners, The Column Group and a few others to put $44 million into Kallyope in December. The startup, according to CEO Thornberry, will grow to 24 employees this year and double that next year.

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