Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Band of bio vets lobby state spending plan

By Catherine Williams
Appeared in Mass High Tech on October 1, 2007

A group of the Bay State's top life sciences leaders have banded together to make sure budding biotechnology entrepreneurs aren't left out of Gov. Deval Patrick's billion-dollar life sciences promise.

The new group's organizers say the goal is to use $6.7 million worth of state funds over the next decade to protect the industry's earliest ideas and youngest minds amid what could become the sector's feeding frenzy of institutions and business groups keen to get their hands on the governor's proposed billion-dollar bounty.

The purpose of the group, dubbed the Massachusetts Lifesciences Startup Initiative, is to ensure smaller companies can transition to a venture-backed company quickly, said Anupendra Sharma, a founder of the group.

"We should reduce the friction from idea to a funded venture," said Sharma, who is also partner at Boston-based investment firm Siemens Venture Capital.

Even though the state funds have yet to win approval by the Legislature, every corner of the Bay State's life sciences market is buzzing. If Patrick's life sciences bill passes, the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center -- the state's life sciences investment arm -- would hold the purse strings. Sharma and his group plan to pitch a handful of ideas to the Life Sciences Center on how best to spend state funds on spawning life sciences startups.

Participants of the group include Martin Madaus, president and CEO of Billerica-based Millipore Corp. and a director of the Massachusetts High Technology Council; Glen Comiso, director of life sciences at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative; Ganesh Venkataraman, founder and senior vice president of research at Momenta Pharmaceuticals Inc.; Lita Nelsen, director of the MIT technology licensing office; and Maggie Flanagan LeFlore, head of R&D Ventures for AstraZeneca Plc.

Representatives of local industry groups are also weighing in. Both Mark Robinson, the chief operating officer of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, and Laura Allen, a director at Medical Device Industry Council, have joined the group.

One idea, with a proposed price tag of $3 million, is to set up an entrepreneur-in-residence program. A second idea the group is considering is to establish a statewide Geek Day, an event for local scientists to pitch innovations to venture capitalists. The annual event is estimated to cost $500,000 over 10 years.

Leon Sandler, executive director of The Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation at MIT, said he supports any efforts to help startups spin out technology.

But Sandler cautions that lawmakers, or think-tankers, should pilot the proposals before building a bureaucracy around them, he said.

Meanwhile, it's unclear when, and if, the governor's 10-year, $1 billion bill will pass. Bay State House legislators are debating the initiative.

Sharma's new group is one of a checkerboard of organizations bent on furthering the Bay State's life sciences industry and offering opinions about how the state might spend the money.

But Sandler said the more ideas, the better.

"It's a political process. The joy of democracy is that it is chaotic and overlapping," said Sandler.

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