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

2/6/09Follow @xconomy

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in exchange for some antibodies from Stine in the future, and the rest from an IP lawyer in town who fronted that money for the right to a piece of some of the milestone payments in the future if Stine hits gold, as well as future legal fees.

Then there’s the lab space. “I walked in to this place, and said, ‘This is horrible,’” Stine relates. When he proposed a $1,000-a-month lease for 1,000 square feet of space, the deal was done. Stine and a friend, Greg Hjelm, then poured in the sweat equity, painted the place themselves, put in new drywall, installed new electrical wiring, laid down the carpet, put in shelves, and rolled in all the lab equipment. He still heads up the road occasionally to the R&R Rabbitry 40 miles north of Seattle to get the rabbit blood samples he needs as raw material to run his antibody drug experiments.

All told, Stine has spent about $20,000 of his own money before he was able to start spending company money on company expenses, Stine says. He’s now in a position to think about hiring two or three people to help him over the next four months, he says.

North Coast, Stine insists, is just getting started. Stine’s talking with Leroy Hood of the Institute for Systems Biology about making a bunch of new antibodies that Hood’s team can use for experiments that enable his vision of P4 medicine—personalized, predictive, preventive, and participatory. “Lee’s dream is pretty awesome, and I’m all over it, I want to help,” Stine says.

Yet as Hood once told me, “There are lots of great talkers, and not nearly as many great doers” in the biotech business. Stine has already shown he can get a company started that goes on to raise more than $30 million in traditional venture capital for drug development.

If Stine can really prove it’s sustainable to build a “garage” biotech company, owned and operated by a sole scientist, this would certainly qualify as a big idea. Some of this might be seen as traditional contract labor, which isn’t really novel, but if he can discover drugs and keep a sizable piece of equity in them while a big company develops them, it just might get others thinking about other various end-runs around the VC power structure.

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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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