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To Take On New York, Accelerator Makes Big Changes: A Chat With Thong Le

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big-idea platform companies, which is kind of what happened in the prior Accelerator iteration. We’re going to take a very mixed approach. We’ll do some big platform ideas, we may do some targeted product development opportunities, we might do some spin-out opportunities. Also, we’re going to spend a fair amount of time working with our institution partners. We hope that a large portion of the deals are going to come right from those institutions [and from] technologies they’ve been working on. And that’s something I think is going to be markedly different from prior Accelerators.

X: With the new cash, will the size of the investments be different?

TL: We have eight investors in our syndicate [Alexandria Venture Investments, Arch, WRF Capital, Eli Lilly, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, the Partnership Fund for New York City, and Harris & Harris Group]. Many of our investors have told us that if we find good opportunities, they will back [those companies]. If we need more, even in a Series A capacity, they are more than willing to provide that for the right opportunities. I wouldn’t be surprised if you see opportunities that we fund that are going to be much [larger] than what we may have historically financed, because we have that capacity and wherewithal.

X: Accelerator had been talking about potentially coming to New York for a while. Why did things finally come together now?

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who came over from Genentech to lead Rockefeller University, is one of New York biotech's biggest advocates.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne became the first industry executive to lead Rockefeller University when he came over from Genentech in 2010

TL: We saw a transition to commercialization with [university] leadership that actually had direct commercialization experience from industry. That made things very different in terms of the way those institutions started looking at and working with industry. That was a huge plus for us: the commercial leadership and its willingness to embrace the development of technologies and the accretion of startup companies. The other piece of it was finding a good base of investors that resonated well, where they were committed to really helping build the ecosystem. We have [backers] like Pfizer, for example, which has obviously spent a long time there. Harris & Harris is based in New York, and has wanted to do things in New York, but hasn’t been able to find a way to implement that. It also turned out that Alexandria was building a strong life sciences cluster where they’d attract a lot of these large pharmaceutical companies. And one of the key pieces they’ve been missing is an effort to establish strong, high-quality life sciences companies that can also take residence in those facilities as well. For us, the timing couldn’t have been better.

X: Were you looking at other locations, too?

TL: We looked at San Diego and some of the other centers in that area. We’ve looked at pockets on the East Coast. We looked at places like Texas, and also looked at places in the Midwest. We’ve looked abroad, we’ve even looked at places in Asia where technology clusters are being established. But the commercialization [efforts in New York], and the type of resources and interest level that we had from investors really trying to build a vibrant life science ecosystem at the early-stage side, that—and also the way the institutions that we’ve partnered with have come together and really wanted to work with us—is something we couldn’t find that at some of the other places that we had considered.

X: There’s been a lot of momentum in New York biotech, but a ton of progress still has to be made. What do you think is missing to take that next step?

TL: We’re hoping that us coming here is a kind of clarion call to the entrepreneurs. One of the things lacking in this community is entrepreneurial-minded, time-tested management that has done startup companies, knows what it means to work in a startup company, knows how to be scrappy, knows how to get a lot done with a little bit of resource. That’s one of the elements crucially missing here. And we’re hoping, at least at this early stage of the game, to work collectively to oversee and manage these companies. So to some extent we solve that problem, but when some of our companies graduate and go beyond the financing we provide them and really look to scale, we’re going to need to recruit high quality management teams to run those companies. We’re hoping the entrepreneurial community steps up to really help out.

X: What other things can local leaders and entrepreneurs do to help move things along?

TL: There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done. Some of it needs to be done by the government, some of it can be done by us. Some of it is being addressed by the initiatives that universities are trying to do with entrepreneurs-in-residence-type programs and whatnot. There may have to be a combination of public and private collaborations to make large spaces available, so that you can actually develop that space into something that’s really world class. But I’m not going to point the finger—I don’t think it’s any one person’s responsibility to solve it. I think everybody has to come together and contribute to finding and helping to develop a solution.

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