I recently attended the CED Life Science Conference in Raleigh, N.C. With over 1,000 participants this year, this event has become one of the leading life science gatherings in the country, held in one of the most dynamic biotechnology hubs in the world.
I always enjoy attending each year because the conference showcases some of the most interesting and innovative life science companies based in N.C, while bringing in some of the best thought leaders and business leaders in the life science and biopharmaceutical industries from all over the world.
In recent years, I’ve had the good fortune of being invited to share the BRI story with the conference attendees; last year as a showcase company and this year in a video montage.
New to the program this year were two pre-conference events that I think nicely captured the entrepreneurial spirit in the N.C. life science community. The first was an AgBio workshop entitled “Navigating the Big Six,” referring to the six large crop companies in the industry (Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, BASF, Dow and Dupont). The panel featured some of the leading agricultural biotechnology companies and investors in the area, including Dan Tomso, chief scientific officer at AgBiome, Philip Benfey, co-founder of Hi-Fidelity Genetics, and Gabriel Wilmoth, investment manager at Syngenta Ventures.
The key takeaway I learned was that as the industry consolidates and changes (pending the merger of Dow and Dupont and the Syngenta acquisition by Chem China), acquiring innovation from outside these organizations is becoming increasingly important as companies cut back their internal R&D spending. While many of the panelists lamented the shrinking pool of potential strategic partners in the ag bio space (e.g., the “Big Six” will become “Big Five” this year), they stressed the importance of developing good relationships with internal champions in each of these organizations as a driver of partnering success.
The second event, entitled “Life Science Companies Changing the World,” was organized by the North Carolina State University Alumni Entrepreneurs Network and featured panelists at some of the innovative companies that have spun out of N.C. State University, including BioResource International, Xanofi, Aseptia and Agile Sciences. The panel, moderated by Kelly Sexton, director of the Office of Technology Transfer at N.C. State University, focused on the challenges and opportunities each of the companies have faced in their growth. Jim Shamp wrote a nice summary about the event on the N.C. Biotechnology Center blog.
It’s interesting to note that each of the companies had to make an adjustment in their business plan as they transitioned from startup mode to a growth stage company. Both Xanofi and Agile are focusing in some key areas outside of their original businesses and Aseptia had to scale back some of their aggressive growth plans. BRI was no different – we started with enzymes to improve feather meal digestibility and even did some research on the prevention of mad cow disease. Luckily, we had the foresight and opportunity to get into the high growth and value-added space of specialized feed additives for poultry and swine.
As for the CED Life Science Conference itself, the real highlight for me was listening to Dr. Charles Gersbach from Duke University talk about the future of gene editing and how this hot new technology is revolutionizing life science research and potentially, how we treat disease. An engineer by training, Dr. Gersbach shared his groundbreaking work on using the CRISPR/Cas 9 gene editing tool to repair the defective gene responsible for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy in mouse models. It’s impressive that leading edge life science research like this is being done every day in the Triangle, in the Triad and all over North Carolina.
Another new development that was announced on stage at the conference was the establishment of the Triangle Venture Alliance, a partnership between Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State University and N.C. Central University. According to their press release, the goal of this alliance is to develop a network of cooperating angel groups that will tap into the alumni base of these Triangle-area universities to help draw seed stage capital to emerging companies in the area and accelerate the spinout of innovative technology into startup companies. As this has often been said (and reiterated at the N.C. State Entrepreneurs Network panel), the Triangle-area does not lack for high-quality research and development (see note above about Dr. Gersbach) and a talented and skilled workforce. What it does lack in comparison to other successful technology hubs is access to capital. Hopefully the Triangle Venture Alliance is one more step in the direction of creating more entrepreneurial success stories in the area – I would be too happy to share the stage with these future bright stars (and maybe even help fund or mentor a couple of them…).