Sticking it to the VC Man: Johnny Stine Builds Biotech Startup on a Shoestring

2/6/09Follow @xconomy

The lone entrepreneur in a garage, driven to change the world, is one of the most powerful archetypical characters of American capitalism. It may still work today in isolated cases for iPhone apps or Internet software, but in biotech, it’s a laughable idea. This is an industry where it takes a decade of sustained work, and hundreds of millions of dollars in capital to make a new FDA-approved drug. Only the biggest boys of venture capital can make it happen, conventional wisdom says.

But there’s Johnny Stine, all by himself, cranking up the AC/DC hard rock anthems in a leaky warehouse in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. Xconomy has learned that Stine, a former scientist at Bothell, WA-based Icos and founder of Seattle-based Spaltudaq, has scored a string of three partnerships to make rabbit-based antibody drugs for biotech and pharma companies that could pay him as much as $200 million, plus royalties, if he can create drugs that successfully reach the market. Sure, that hardly happens in biotech, but these deals mean that Stine has been able to set up his company, North Coast Biologics, while keeping 100 percent ownership to himself, and without taking a dollar of venture capital.

“This company is in business now as long as I can run,” Stine says. “It solidifies my company now for 10, 15, maybe 20 years.”

Stine, 44, has signed agreements to keep the names of his clients confidential, and he’s not disclosing how much cash he’s actually getting upfront, so this story may have to be taken with more than a shake of salt. But I was able to pump some details out of him earlier this week. One company has signed a 10-year agreement with North Coast which provides upfront payments, and milestones worth as much as $150 million if Stine can deliver as many as 50 new, improved rabbit-derived antibody drugs. These drugs will be made to block protein targets on cells that are largely established as disease culprits, Stine says. Another client is based in Canada, and a third customer is a local biotech. Those two have contracted with North Coast on developing as many as 11 new antibodies designed to block newly discovered protein targets on cells, Stine says. The backloaded, milestone-driven contracts follow industry standard dealmaking templates, except Stine offers his services at lower rates because he has such low overhead, he says.

Like a lot of people in Seattle biotech, I wondered last summer, when Stine first told me his story, whether this was all too pie-in-the-sky. He sounded like a charismatic scientific character soured by a brush with The Man, but probably naïve, facing economic forces he probably didn’t understand very well. I agreed to listen after Accelerator’s Carl Weissman, who backed Stine’s previous company, said, “I wouldn’t bet against him.”

But how is this possible? The way Stine tells the story, it’s all about being creative, and “lowering your tastes.” He found a chemical fume hood “dirt cheap” from Bothell, WA-based MDRNA, as that company has had to slash costs. He found consumable chemicals off eBay that are far less expensive than from the fancy vendors. He got a sophisticated robot for handling liquids in experiments for $2,000, even though it was easily worth $100,000. “The guy who had it didn’t know what it was,” Stine says. Most importantly, he got an Applied Biosystems FMAT 8200 machine for studying protein-protein interactions for $120,000, less than half of retail price. “It’s probably the best piece of equipment ABI ever made. And then they discontinued it,” Stine says.

And the kicker is that he didn’t front any of the money for that expensive instrument. He got a collaborator to pay half of the bill … Next Page »

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  • Farah R

    What a lovely heartwarming story in these recessionary times. I love this guy. All the best Mr. Stine.

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  • Carl Weissman

    Stickin’ it to the VC Man? I am not so sure. Different businesses require different business plans. Some of those business plans support venture capital backing, others are more appropriate for angel investors, and some work best when they are bootstrapped by the founders.

    In addition, those different business types also require different characteristics of the folks that found, run, and work in them.

    Few people may know or remember this, but the company currently called Life Technologies was bootstrapped out of a garage, largely by a guy named Joe Fernandez who long ago left the company. They were profitable early and stayed that way, scaling their business as they went along.

    Johnny has found a business that he can bootstrap. Johnny has the guts, determination, and personality to roll up his sleeves, dig in, and not only be the guy isolating antibodies but also the guy who is hanging sheetrock, mudding, and painting.

    His is not a business that would work well for traditional venture capital. And he knows it (and maybe revels in it…). Google Ger van den Engh and his company Cytopeia that he built in basically a “garage” in north Seattle. His company got purchased by Becton-Dicksenson for what I promise you was a significant amount of money (I know Ger, and I know he would never give up his independence unless it was an offer he could not refuse). Cytopeia was also a business not easily suited to traditional venture capital, although I am sure his angel investors did very well.

    Who knows if Johnny’s company North Coast Biologics can become the next Life Technologies. Or the next Cytopeia. But as I said months ago, I would not bet against Johnny.

    But stickin’ it to the VC man? I don’t think so. Johnny has found a business model where VC’s should not get involved. And it suits him well. Good for him. We should all be so lucky.

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