The image of the double helix has captivated the public imagination for a long time. But biotechnology today actually requires what you might call a triple helix of money, people, and ideas, according to John Mendlein, the chairman of San Diego-based Fate Therapeutics.
All three ingredients were in one place Wednesday night for Xconomy’s event on the 20-year outlook for the San Diego life sciences industry. About 175 people packed a commons at Biogen Idec’s San Diego campus to hear a panel discussion that featured Mendlein, Paul Schimmel of The Scripps Research Institute, Dan Bradbury of Amylin Pharmaceuticals, and Rusty Gage of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
“We get to peer into the future,” Mendlein said in his opening remarks. “Everyone in this room is responsible for our collective future. It really is all in our hands.”
Yes, I know, it sounds like weighty stuff, and it is. But Mendlein reminded people not to take themselves too seriously with this crystal ball stuff: “If you have questions about the future, these three gentlemen have all the answers,” Mendlein deadpanned. “You can ask them what their company stock prices will be five years from now, or 10 years from now, or 20.”
Once these guys settled into a groove, they offered up a lot of fascinating insights. Here are some of the highlights, edited for length and clarity as always.
Paul Schimmel on why he left MIT in the late 1990s to come to Scripps:
“I had many wonderful years at MIT. It’s a big place. A great place. I was well-supported. But I wanted to go back to being a seed again. I wanted to go to a place that was smaller, that would support me, and in my case [that was] The Scripps Research Institute, where there was at least the illusion of a lot of resources. But where the structure was such that you could feel you were in a scientific playground, and could start from scratch again.”
“The difference for me between Cambridge and San Diego was, when I went to Cambridge, it was a different era, but many seeds had already grown. You were basically finding your way among all these trees and trying to get new trees established. Here, there were fewer big trees. In that sense, for me it opened up more creative possibilities. It forced me even to a greater extent, into self-reliance, and freedom of thought.”
Dan Bradbury on what the San Diego biotech scene looked like when he arrived to join Amylin in the mid-90s:
“San Diego at that point had two pretty major biotech companies that were independent: Agouron and Idec. Gen-Probe was also growing. So there was already a fairly substantial biotech base, and there were a lot of new platform-based biotech companies starting in San Diego. It was an exciting environment. One of the things I found exciting about moving here was the prospect, that ‘By the way, if things don’t work out at Amylin, there’s somewhere else you could go.”
“Scripps Research Institute had a global big deal with Johnson & Johnson, and that was the only major pharma presence in San Diego at the time. That’s changed dramatically now with Pfizer, Novartis, J&J, Takeda here now. From a perspective of what’s changed, we’ve seen San Diego become a very large center for diagnostic companies with Invitrogen (now Life Technologies), Illumina establishing itself as the leading sequencing and genotyping company. Gen-Probe is continuing to grow. Genoptix as well. If you look at the diagnostics side, it’s really back to the future with Hybritech, and diagnostics coming back.”
Schimmel on what he would do if he were a venture capitalist with limited resources to invest in San Diego research:
“I’d look very hard for those laboratories that I thought had really innovative ideas, and find a way to provide some funding, and get a call on the intellectual property side. Hopefully, in 12 to 24 months, I’d have enough IP from that effort to syndicate with firms outside of San Diego. I’d want to be the one with the idea, the one to have financed the laboratory, and gotten the kernel of the idea going. I think it’s much easier to do that here than it is in big universities on the East Coast or in Northern California. You have such great access to people here. There’s a sense of friendliness and openness. It partly comes from the fact that we have so many institutions here [that] are private and small.”
Rusty Gage on the current trend he sees among venture capitalists:
“It’s almost as if the investors don’t have as much confidence anymore as they used to. Maybe they have less money, but they also have less confidence in their own judgment. The thing scientists worry about is that when you have a good idea, and you want to move it forward, there’s a sense that you need to have a Phase I clinical trial ready to go. I worry that is a criterion that will cause people to move too quickly along, and make commitments too far out. I understand the driver for that, but I think there should be caution around moving too quickly.”
Bradbury on new attitudes toward investment coming out of the downturn:
“Who makes up the venture community now is changing. You’re seeing a lot more corporate venture. Basically, discovery is non-existent now in pharma. Essentially, non-existent. Some of the size of the corporate venture funds out there are pretty significant now, if you look at Lilly, Novo, J&J, SR One. These are pretty big funds that companies are assigning to discovery. It’s pretty smart, because it’s off their balance sheet, essentially. It’s another version of how you get capital behind discovery, without having to put it on your income statement. So there’s new thinking coming back on how to fund discovery research.”
Bradbury on the importance of networking in San Diego:
“The network is critical for San Diego to continue to be a major hub of innovation. I believe it will be. If you look at stem cells here, the Center for Regenerative Medicine, the way that was created with UCSD, Scripps, Salk, (Sanford Burnham), all working together, that’s probably pretty unique to San Diego.
Gage on the big opportunity he sees in life sciences over the next two decades:
“There are great opportunities for bioinformatics startups to support the onslaught of genomic data that is spinning out.”
Bradbury on how genomics is transforming the pharmaceutical industry:
“The amount of information, and the speed at which we will have that information, and the lack of cost in getting that information is astounding. It’s almost unfathomable how much information that will generate. That sequencing cost is just going through the floor. There’s a lot of opportunity for companies in San Diego to be formed around that.”
Schimmel on the future for bioinformatics:
“I was on the original founding scientific advisory board for Illumina, getting it started with David Walt and some of his colleagues here in San Diego. They are now probably the leading genomics information obtaining company in the world. They have capacity to generate detailed genomic information about everyone in this room very quickly. But we don’t know what to do with that information for the most part. At the same time, the research being done to make connections between polymorphisms and mutations in genes and human disorders is being changed every day in real-time. There’s a huge opportunity there for the right computational people to be able to get those databases and transmit that information. Ultimately, it will be an iPhone application. You will have an application on your iPhone that will basically, every day, give you the latest information that’s relevant to your particular DNA sequence.”
“There’s far more to do than any one group can do. I was talking recently to Phil Sharp at MIT, who’s a founder of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. I asked him to predict a hot area going forward in neuroscience that you could jump into quickly. He said computational neuroscience. It’s going to be an absolutely explosive area, relevant to all kinds of disease diagnosis and treatment. San Diego is well positioned for this. You’ve got to think more about how to build bridges between things that are already here. You have Illumina already here. You have Qualcomm already here. You have people who are very good at computational work already here. There’s a huge opportunity in finding out how to build clever bridges and starting something up. Before you know it, it will be something everybody is buzzing about.”
Mendlein on what’s missing in San Diego biotech:
“We have our work cut out for us. We do. The Boston area is on fire right now. San Diego has a lot of fires here in terms of companies, but if we want to keep pharma research centers here, we have to work on it. There are firms doing it, but it’s an essential element. We are at a slight disadvantage for a good reason, because of time zones. There’s been a lot of investment in the Boston area by Big Pharma. I’d like to reverse the trend in the San Diego area. If you look back, there are different tributaries of funding that come into this area, and we want to keep all of it flowing as much as possible, and pharma is an important one.”
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