Seattle Children’s researcher Jim Olson has some thoughts about how to go about launching and leading a biotech startup.
His research lab has helped forge Seattle-area startups developing a wide range of technologies. Link Immunotherapeutics focuses on developing new immuno-oncology drugs; Presage Biosciences assesses which cancer drugs tumors respond to; and Blaze Bioscience is testing “tumor paint” that lights up cancer cells to help brain surgeons remove tumors.
There’s a fourth biotech company being born, said Olson, who also heads the Invent at Seattle Children’s Postdoctoral Scholars Program to train students underrepresented in science for careers in biotechnology.
GeekWire caught up with Olson recently to talk about his advice for life sciences founders, including when to spin out a biotech company, how to get out of the way, and the importance of assessing data critically.
Everything his lab does is with an eye toward commercialization and helping patients, said Olson, who also sees patients regularly as a Seattle Children’s oncologist.
“If I die with a really strong CV (curriculum vitae), but no products that actually help people, that really isn’t really meeting my career goals,” said Olson. “And so, everything we do is geared toward therapeutics.”
Read Olson’s key three pieces of advice for biotech founders below. His answers were edited for brevity and clarity.
Don’t spin out too early
Jim Olson: “When I started my first biotech company, Presage, I spent two years trying to understand why so many biotech companies fail. When they leave academia, there’s like a 90% failure rate. One of those reasons is because they spin out prematurely. Investors don’t have a tolerance for paying for research, but they don’t mind paying for development. You should really have a product and the key proof of concept experiments done.
I really see the role of our lab as doing the pre-IND work [data collection prior an investigational new drug application, setting the stage for a clinical trial]. We also focus on a product that could go directly into manufacturing. The proof-of-concept studies are done, and the key toxicity studies have been done, even if they’re not at the level that you would need for the FDA. But there are actual products coming out.”
Get out of the way
“The second lesson I learned was to not get in the way of the company. A lot of founders think they are smart enough to be business people. When we started Presage, I didn’t even go into the building for the first three months because I wanted the new team members to recognize Rich [Richard Klinghoffer, now CEO] as the head of science, and not be doing the Mom and Dad thing where they’re asking me some questions if they don’t like the answer that Rich is giving them. I think stepping back and not casting a founder shadow is really important.”
Follow your intuition and interrogate the data
“You get these little gut feelings that tell you that something’s wrong with this program or project. And if you suppress those gut feelings, because you’re worried about getting investors and things like that, it’s going to come back and be a problem down the road.
You want to design experiments to tell you whether a project should be killed or move forward. And you want to just do that unemotionally, both in academia and in biotech. Why would you spend the one life you have working on something that is going to fail later, instead of failing now, if you can do an experiment that shows you that there’s a problem?
There’s times when you just see something and you say, ‘Wow, you know if that’s true, that could be a real problem.’ And people will kind of even subconsciously design experiments to show it in the best light. Instead, let’s bring it into the sunlight.”