The Face of Biotech is Changing: Summary of the #SDBNJune Event

Panelists Claire Weston, Joseph Jackseon, Ethan Perlstein, Ryan Bethencourt, and moderator Jamie Bacher at SDBN's June 24th event.
Panelists Claire Weston, Joseph Jackseon, Ethan Perlstein, Ryan Bethencourt, and moderator Jamie Bacher at SDBN’s June 24th event.

Old funding and research methods are no longer working for small biotechs, big pharma or academic scientists. The flip side of this crisis is breeding innovation at every stage of the drug discovery pipeline. As part of BIO 2014, SDBN gathered a panel of innovators to talk about “Reinventing California Biotech.” The panelists were optimistic about new funding sources, new industry infrastructure and the collaborative nature of San Diego biotech.

Joseph Jackson is CEO of Bio, Tech and Beyond, San Diego’s largest community lab and biotech accelerator. He stressed the importance of thinking outside the box when it comes to funding. Traditional funding sources (government grants and venture capital) are drying up, but there is now a rise of ‘venture philanthropy’ from high worth individuals. Patient advocacy groups are also becoming more sophisticated. There is a lot of capital out there, it just isn’t efficiently matched to research talent because scientists don’t know how to market themselves.

Ethan Perlstein has marketed himself very effectively and turned the academic research model on its head. He used social networks and crowd funding to woo investors to fund his research. Then he set up his lab in QB3@953, one of the biotech incubators springing up around the world. Ethan said there are three keys to lean biotech startup: networking on social media, incubation and outsourcing.

Networking and refreshments provided by Alchemy San Diego before the panel presentation.
The SDBN June event was held downtown in a warehouse to fit the DIY theme, about 100 attendees networked and enjoyed California-sourced food and drink from Alchemy San Diego.

Claire Weston founded Reveal Biosciences in a garage two years ago. She now runs this successful biotech using a hybrid business model that uses contract services to fund technology development. Claire also commented on the importance of outsourcing. It is now possible to run a biotech company from a laptop in your bedroom by coordinating the right people toward the same goal. Social media opens up the global marketplace. She emphasized that the San Diego life sciences community is really collaborative – many universities and large companies are willing to rent high end equipment for a nominal fee. “If you need help,” Claire said, “You just need to ask.”

Joseph and Ryan Bethencourt, CEO of Berkeley Biolabs, a Bay Area biotech incubator, both talked about the importance of open source alternatives to disrupt the current market for reagents and equipment. They envisage lightweight modular machines that can be reconfigured in the lab to perform different tasks. This, combined with cheaper reagents, would drastically reduce the cost of setting up a lab. Ryan went on to say that the whole drug pipeline will radically change as technologies become easier to use and available to everyone. People will be able to synthesize their own drugs. He did caution that regulatory systems are not keeping up with rapid technological advances in biotech.

It was clear from the panel discussion that change is happening in the biotech industry. If we embrace it, it will bring exciting new opportunities.