Nsight Barbara Nelsen on the business of science.

Filed under Biomedical, Business growth, Biotech funding, Life science, Pharmaceutical

You can’t have a rich biotech ecosystem without critical mass

Catching up on Minnesota news in the Star Tribune a few weeks ago, the following headline caught my eye: Minnesota loses when tech firms head west. The article, by Lee Schafer, was about how promising tech start-ups may start in Minnesota, but don’t always stay in Minnesota. The problem? No matter how lucrative the low rent or how educated the state’s workforce, Minnesota lags not only in terms of access to capital, but in another very key ingredient: critical mass.

Schafer writes, “It’s common in the (San Francisco) Bay Area for an entrepreneur to get introduced to another entrepreneur who introduces him or her to investors who introduce him or her to a blogger who suggests a potential customer. That doesn’t happen as easily in Minneapolis.”

Though Schafer’s article was about software tech companies, I’d say the same is true for biotech startups – I see the contrast firsthand every time I shuttle between my Minnesota and Boston offices.

One of the reasons Boston/Cambridge is a premier – if not the premier – biotech hub in the U.S. is that its many biotech startups are so concentrated. The area features several collaborative, entrepreneur-rich spaces such as the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) and District Hall. According to CIC’s founder and CEO Tim Rowe, there are about 600 startup companies based at CIC, allowing it to claim that it has “more startups than anywhere else on the planet.”

Nelsen Biomedical rents flex space at CIC, which means I don’t know who I’ll be officing next to on any given day. Even for an introvert, it would be impossible not to make new connections in this kind of environment. CIC also fosters connections by how it’s designed its common areas. For example, each of the building’s seven floors has a cafeteria that features distinct menu offerings, prompting tenants to visit different floors to seek out variety in their meals and snacks (as entrepreneurs are wont to do). This creates ample opportunities for people to cross paths with folks they haven’t met before. At one such cafeteria (I think it was the 5th floor), I ran into “Bruce”, who I’d met at an event a few weeks earlier. In the span of a ten-minute conversation over coffee, I was able to learn about the services Bruce’s company offers (in short, a way of analyzing big data to identify the cause of clinical trial failures and revive programs), and realized that this technology would be quite valuable for one of my clients. I was able to broker a conversation between Bruce and my client – truly a win-win-win situation.

CIC colleague Christa Bleyleben of Mass Global Partners concurs: “One of the greatest values for me is the opportunity of ‘chance encounters’ . By having so many smart people and open-minded entrepreneurs so close together, you never need to look far to find someone that can be a sounding board….help with any issues you may have, [like] finding a branding specialist, a part time controller, [or] an IP lawyer. The proverbial ‘water-cooler-effect’ is at work every day in the highest concentration.”

A gathering at the Venture Cafe.

Besides spontaneous meetups, CIC also features planned events such as the weekly Venture Café Thursday Nights, “a physical nexus for helping innovators and entrepreneurs find one another and collaborate to bring their dreams to reality.” These and nearly 50 other monthly gatherings are attended not only by CIC tenants, but about 1000 guests each month as well – magnifying the networking potential. And even when I’m not physically at CIC, I find its LinkedIn group very helpful for forging connections and locating resources and expertise, for example when I was looking for a new intern.

There’s great biotech startups here! They’re just not very concentrated.

In contrast, for all its medical device acumen, the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro is still a tough place for biotech start-ups to thrive. We simply aren’t bumping into each other enough. The biotech community is certainly working hard to change this, however: Minnesota’s life science trade organization LifeScience Alley laudably organizes networking events for its members, and LSA’s Frank Jaskulke is one of the best resources in town for connecting entrepreneurs in life sciences beyond medical devices.

Companies like Regus, Café Inc, Joule, WorkAround, and CoCo offer offices and meeting spaces for small companies, but these are not focused on any particular sector. Treehouse Health and the Healthcare-mn Loft are a great start to providing resources and working spaces for healthcare start-ups, particularly healthcare IT, in the Twin Cities. But the life sciences entrepreneurs really need a space of their own, where they can concentrate enough to create the critical mass that helps drive success.

Until that happens, Nelsen Biomedical is the next best thing: a portal and a partner for Minnesota companies to access the talent, capital, and collaborative possibilities that abound in the biotech hotbeds on both coasts. And for our Boston/Cambridge readers, Nelsen is your connection to some of the best kept biotech secrets in Minnesota.