I was fortunate to attend “Winning Strategies in Life Sciences: Pursuing Success in Today’s Changing Environment,” an all-day conference held October 5 at the University of California, San Francisco’s beautiful new Mission Bay campus. It was sponsored by Foley & Lardner LLP, Silicon Valley Bank, BayBio, QB3 and RoseRyan. The focus areas covered maximizing growth potential, designing models for the wireless health care industry, ensuring global intellectual property and big-pharma mergers and acquisitions. Part of my quest was to answer a burning question: why isn’t biotech doing better, since the baby boomers’ demographic trends indicate that people are living longer, with a higher quality of life?

The sessions were a little more upbeat than the biotech news has been over the past two years—the industry has taken a beating as venture capitalists have focused on hot new social media and technology start-ups at the expense of the sometimes-capital-intensive biotech industry. One area of intense pride is the new QB3 incubator on UCSF’s Mission Bay campus. It is now full of start-ups (more than 40) that are given access to tools, money and networking opportunities, and find it easier to get from start-up mode to their first and second round of funding. Housed on the Mission Bay campus with other aspiring entrepreneurs, they can share ideas and contacts that can help accelerate their progress. Also, the QB3 center provides a concentrated area of experts that venture capitalists and other companies find attractive. QB3 has partnerships with outside venture partners (as well as service providers) that have poured more than $10M into the start-ups and is in the middle of raising an additional $10M to put into new companies. This is a little known success story outside of the biotech industry!

Some insights from the sessions included:

  • The FDA has gotten better with providing clearer direction, but still has a ways to go.
  • Angel investors like health care IT, because there are fewer regulatory hurdles to jump over.
  • The health care IT sector has had rapid growth due to ARRA’s funding for electronic health records, which provides $45,000 for providers who are “meaningful users” of the technology. This is a clear edict that should provide rapid automation (and hoped-for cost savings) over the next five to 10 years.
  • Investors are frightened by the large numbers of patents that are expiring over the next three to five years, because generics radically drive down the cost of pharmaceuticals.
  • Capital efficiency is key for companies that must deal with a difficult regulatory environment.
  • Many companies continue to go outside of the U.S. to accelerate their testing requirements.
  • The JOBS Act will not have a great influence on whether companies file to go public or not.
  • Wireless is a booming area of biotech growth, as companies are rushing to build applications that focus on personalized medicine and the improving relationships between doctors and health care providers. One wireless private network provider has analyzed more than 25,000 applications.
  • Mergers and acquisitions continue to far outweigh IPO exits. It is imperative for companies to plan for potential exits one to two years in advance.
  • More M&A events are focused on changing the landscape of drug/device combinations, building infrastructure in noncore areas and growing holistic end-to-end solutions.

Although the economy is still muddling along, biotech is holding its own in the Bay Area. I didn’t get my answer to why biotech isn’t booming now, but with the baby boomers aging, Obamacare coming and the pace of innovation increasing, the future looks pretty bright.

Last night, as a BayBio partner, I attended the Ninth Annual Entrepreneur & Investor Roundtables event in Palo Alto. This BayBio event gives entrepreneurs in start-up life sciences companies an opportunity to meet and present to investors, both VCs and angel groups. The format is a speed dating arrangement that gives them about eight minutes to pitch.

I’ve attended this event for the last six years, and it’s an interesting reflection of how the industry has changed over time. In the early days, there was more interest in funding and more resources. Now the sources of funding are fewer, the dollars are more scarce—and the bar of approval is higher.

Investors, both VCs and angels, are more specific in their focus and they need to see higher levels of meeting milestones before approving additional or initial funding. There is more emphasis on demonstrating proof of concept before they fund the next level.

Also, the funding requirements to grow these companies are always going to be higher than many of their entrepreneurial counterparts in the tech industry. This is also different from entrepreneurs in the social media or software space, where an investment of $500K can keep you going for more than a year.

Although the funding climate is difficult and takes patience, the passion among entrepreneurs is still strong. Also, I’ve noticed over the last few years that these scientist-entrepreneurs are more business savvy than in the early years, and they have practiced and refined their presentations and their understanding of business forecasting and strategy.

The virtual company approach is almost universal in one form or another, with everything outsourced except for core competencies. Hiring fewer employees but using more consultants and developing collaborations is the norm. And overseas clinical trials are growing more common, in part because of the difficulty and expense of dealing with the FDA.

I have to say that I am always very impressed with the courage, stamina and determination of the entrepreneurs that I have met in life sciences. They are definitely not doing this for the money, but rather they truly believe that their efforts are helping humankind and/or the environment.

The other recurring fact is that I continue to meet people from all over the world at these events, which demonstrates that the Bay Area is still the global magnet for this type of talent and passion.

The life science community has been anxiously waiting for the announcement of the awards for the $1 billion Qualifying Therapeutic Discovery Project program and the results are out!

Many Bay Area companies did quite well, receiving all or part of what they asked for; this was particularly true for smaller companies. Four of the five companies RoseRyan worked with to develop applications received grants ranging from $244,479 to $733,438. (As a finance professional, I have to ask, Why the odd amounts? So far, we haven’t got an answer to that one.)

The program, part of the health care bill, was designed to spur research and development at biotech companies with 250 or fewer employees through awards of tax credits or grants. According to the San Francisco Business Times, the Treasury Department received applications for about 5,600 projects. The Times published a partial list of Bay Area recipients, and you can see the full lists of recipients by state at the IRS website.)

Last June, my colleague Chris Vane and I spoke with about ten companies at a free consultation with BayBio, and did work for five. This involved helping them write or edit the grant and providing strategic advice, leveraging our prior grant submission work with the Department of Energy as part of our cleantech practice. These companies said it was very useful to sit down with us and talk with them about their strategy for writing grants. We played devil’s advocate, asking questions and helping them look at their business plan strategically.

There could be more grant opportunities cropping up in the future, and it never hurts to apply for a grant or other funding, because it presents an opportunity to take a hard look at your business and appraise why the work is important, where you want to take it and how you will get there.