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QB3 powers new wave of bio startups
CEO Rachel Haurwitz: Startup in a Box made it possible to launch Caribou Biosciences. Photo: Spencer Brown
QB3’s boxes are stacking up.
Startup in a Box, which initially aimed at helping 15 wannabe life sciences entrepreneurs blow past barriers to launching companies, has aided 76 startups since it began a year ago — and it is pushing deeper into the Bay Area. The 17 companies fully operational with Startup in a Box’s aid have set up shop in San Francisco, Berkeley, Walnut Creek and San Jose.
That diaspora is exactly what leaders of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, or QB3, had in mind when they started the program in summer 2011 to help entrepreneurs-in-waiting incorporate a company, get startup government funding, protect their intellectual property or simply set up a no-fee company bank account.
What they weren’t counting on, however, was an overflowing box.
“This was very much an experiment,” said Douglas Crawford, associate director of QB3, which was set up as a way of linking academic research at University of California campuses in Berkeley, San Francisco and Santa Cruz with commercial opportunities.
“I’m shocked at how impactful the experiment has been.”
Startup in a Box companies pay a $100 fee, which is waived for technology coming out of the University of California system.
Although the individual companies are small and living off federal Small Business Innovation Research grants or friends-and-family funding — and most are mere paper companies at this point — the Startup in a Box boom has larger implications. Together, Crawford said, they will create jobs, lease space and blaze a trail for other startups.
In fact, Crawford said, QB3 may have to work with developers and landlords on partnerships that provide space for fast-growing, “zero-to-30” miles per hour companies that need just a few thousand square feet of lab space.
QB3’s network of incubator-like space, including the East Bay Innovation Center in Berkeley and the FibroGen Inc. building in Mission Bay, is full, Crawford said.
Startup in a Box’s numbers have been aided in part by a close collaboration with BioSF, an effort by the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, the nonprofit San Francisco Center for Economic Development and QB3 to boost the roster of life sciences companies in San Francisco. That has allowed Startup in a Box to help companies with no connection to the University of California.
Those startups include companies formed by former employees at companies like Genentech Inc. and Amyris Biotechnologies Inc.
“As biotech has shifted from discovery to development, many people have retooled,” Crawford said. “They are not saying home to watch Oprah Winfrey.”
Five of the companies have set up shop in San Francisco, including one at the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute on Brannan Street, five opened in Berkeley and one each are in Walnut Creek and San Jose. The program also is already helping startups springing from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UC Davis.
It took time before Caribou Biosciences founders Rachel Haurwitz and UC Berkeley professor Jennifer Doudna realized they needed to launch a company around their protein-tagging technology. By that point, they worried the process of starting the company might be too costly.
“Without Startup in a Box, we may never have formed the company,” said Haurwitz, Caribou’s CEO.
Apricity Therapeutics, a startup from the UCSF School of Pharmacy lab of Kathy Giacomini, is developing ways to push chemotherapy agents directly to tumors. That would allow cancer patients to receive larger doses of chemo, which currently are dialed back because the agents spread to healthy cells and cause virulent side effects.
Giacomini and Sook Wah Yee, a project director in Giacomini’s lab, have been working on the technology for a while, Crawford said, but had put off pursuing a Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, grant. With the help of Startup in a Box, including a 15-hour course that ends with entrepreneurs pushing the button to send their SBIR application, the resulting company, Apricity Therapeutics Inc., won a SBIR grant from the National Cancer Institute.
Like many of the early graduates of Startup in a Box, Apricity may not be fully operational for months, Crawford said, but now it has funds that help move the technology from the lab bench to, potentially, a patient’s bedside.
“It’s too easy to allow time to slip away without creating value,” Crawford said. “By helping them through the grant (process), we lowered the energy barrier for them.”
This article, written by Ron Leuty, originally appeared in the San Francisco Business Times on September 14, 2012. Reproduced with permission. Download a pdf of this story