Life sciences panel: Indiana making headway but needs more capital

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Indiana’s life sciences community has made tremendous strides over the last decade but still faces a number of challenges—including the need for more capital for early-stage companies and more executives with a proven ability to create businesses.

That was the consensus of the six-person panel at IBJ's Life Sciences Power Breakfast, which drew nearly 300 people to the downtown Marriott on Friday morning.

“It’s worth looking back to see how far we have come,” said panelist David Johnson, CEO of the life sciences initiative BioCrossroads. He said the state has seen a sharp increase in the amount of capital available and the number of up-and-coming companies.

At the same time, he said the industry would benefit from having a locally based venture capital firm zeroing in on life sciences opportunities—an investment firm that could have the kind of impact on life sciences that locally based Allos Ventures has had in technology.

Further, he said, “Talent is a big term, and we don’t always have all the niches of talent we need.” He said the state could use more entrepreneurs with the proven record of success of Richard DiMarchi, who sold the diabetes drug firm Marcadia Biotech Inc. to Switzerland-based Roche in 2010 and now is building the biotech company Calibrium LLC.

Johnson said help is on the way in the form of the new Indiana Biosciences Research Institute, a public-private partnership that aims to attract world-class scientific leaders to the state as well as life sciences research dollars. He said the institute is on the verge of making major announcements related to “buildings, sites and people.”

One area where the state has made great strides is commercializing research out of universities, said another panelist, P. Ron Ellis, the CEO of Endocyte Inc., a West Lafayette firm developing cancer therapies. He said that working out licensing agreements with universities used to be painful, but schools like Purdue University have smoothed and sped up the process. (See below for a video interview with Ellis.)

"I think the universities are playing a big role right now in spawning out new technologies,” Ellis said in an interview after the panel discussion. “The excitement and enthusiasm of universities to spawn new business is a big change and a big help.”

Panelist Wade Lange of the consulting firm Lange Advisors Inc. agreed that mindsets in academia are shifting. “This is not about crass commercialization,” Lange said of technology transfer. He said it’s about coming to market with new treatments that help patients.

Panelists agreed the life sciences community would benefit from more opportunities to come together and share ideas, what Johnson called an "innovation district," or “mashup of talent.”

Alisa Wright, CEO of BioConvergence LLC, said many young companies in the area have benefitted from the insights of Eli Lilly and Co. employees who shared their expertise after accepting early retirement offers.

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