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

5/29/09Follow @xconomy

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with 50 conversations, pitching the idea to local investors, technology transfer managers, entrepreneurs, and government officials. The idea has gotten a friendly reception from Travis Sullivan, a senior official at the U.S. Department of Commerce who works for Secretary Gary Locke, the former Washington Governor. Ranken is also seeking support from the office of U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Tacoma.

Bionager has an economic goal of generating investment returns, and an emotional goal of creating more jobs in the local area, Wilcox says. He lamented how many skilled innovators feel the need to migrate to Boston or San Francisco because of the relative lack of biotech startup funding in the Northwest. “We want to help talented people here find work here,” Wilcox says.

I asked these guys why anybody would support this, because there are already programs set up to promote early-stage prototype development. There’s the Seattle-based Accelerator that is backed by high-profile VCs, the Small Business Innovation Research grant program from the federal government, the Life Sciences Discovery Fund set up by Washington state, and the Technology Gap Innovation Fund at the University of Washington, to name a few.

Of course, none of those organizations by themselves really provide enough oomph to singlehandedly drive a local innovation cluster. Venture capitalists, as Chad Waite of OVP Venture Partners told Ranken, “invest in development, not research.” The SBIR grants can take a year to process, and the state grant program just suffered a 41 percent budget cut. Wilcox also sees an opportunity to fill a void in the market for incubating promising medical device technologies.

The real reason the founders want to bet on Bionager? More money just might be available, and the time may be right as the feds try to jolt the U.S. economy back to life.

“The big money will have to come from the federal government in this economy,” Ranken says. “The planets are aligned now. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

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