Can the Feds Get Into the Biotech VC Business? Bionager Wants to Make It Happen

5/29/09Follow @xconomy

Washington state gets more than $1 billion every year from the federal government to support biomedical research, which makes a lot of entrepreneurs wonder why there aren’t more startups being spun out each year. Now a couple of well-known Northwest life sciences entrepreneurs, Tom Ranken and Bob Wilcox, want to take a little more money from Uncle Sam and put it to work advancing that research a little further, by building biotech and medical device companies.

This concept, called Bionager (pronounced BI-on-uh-jer), is still very much at a fledgling stage. Ranken and Wilcox are seeking ways to get the federal government to pump in $10 million to get it off the ground. The goal will be to help finance promising research with commercial potential through the so-called “Valley of Death” where ideas die, because they lack enough proof to win venture capital support to shepherd them through the perilous phases of product development.

The vision is for Bionager to be a for-profit corporation that pools money from the federal government and private investors, who will take equity stakes in startup companies. Unlike many ill-fated incubators run by government economic development groups that seek to create jobs, or real estate developers who seek to fill up lab space, Bionager will seek to generate investment returns, Ranken says. It hopes to make seed investments of $100,000 to $300,000 to each company, and to cut off funding fast if the work doesn’t hit pre-established milestones set by a board with commercial expertise, he says. Once Bionager “separates the wheat from the chaff,” then the startups will be ready to capture the next round of private investment they might otherwise never get.

“This will be a little bit of capital to get you started,” says Wilcox, a former vice president of product development at Bothell, WA-based Ekos, an ultrasound technology company. But as Ranken adds, this isn’t supposed to be some doe-eyed, well-meaning, yet ineffective effort. Bionager intends to offer expert contacts to help get companies going, a firm set of business milestones, and a tight schedule to achieve them. “We’re going to be ruthless,” Ranken says.

Ranken’s past jobs have included stints as president of the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association, and founding CEO of Seattle-based computational biology company VizX Labs. He has complained loudly for years about the “funding gap” he sees as a roadblock to sparking more innovation in the Northwest.

To do something constructive about it, he and Wilcox have sought to establish a five-member board of directors, which includes themselves; WBBA president Chris Rivera; James Severson, vice president of Kirkland, WA-based Veratect; and H. Stewart Parker, the founder and CEO of Seattle-based Targeted Genetics.

Ranken and Wilcox have been pounding the pavement … Next Page »

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