By Karen Hopkin
January 12, 2004 | LAUNCHING A SUCCESSFUL biotech company — and giving it long life — takes more than science smarts and a clever idea. "The ability to raise money requires a different set of skills than the ability to plan high-quality research," says David Harrison, a mouse geneticist at The Jackson Laboratory. Researchers, as a rule, are brutally honest about their work. "You have to question ideas, especially your own," he says.
But winning over the wallets often requires handing out rose-colored glasses. "You don't exactly have to lie," says Judith Campisi of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "But you sure as hell can't tell the whole truth."
Indeed, academics and investors are almost two different species, Harrison found during his tenure on the scientific advisory board of a short-lived startup called Jouvence. The venture capitalists sported "brand-new shirts, power ties, and looked like they had haircuts just that day," he says. The guys on the science side were a lot less slick, with their well-worn shirts and less carefully coiffed hair. "And we never had ties," Harrison says.
But the differences were more than cosmetic. "I found it astonishing how little interest investors had in the science," Harrison says. And even less interest in remaining with the project for the long haul. "They seemed to expect a several-fold increase in money in a few years with relatively little risk," he says.
Jouvence floundered after failing to attract sufficient funds, but the company's plan to patent longevity genes in model organisms and then search for drugs that interact with these targets is essentially the same one that investors are currently backing at Elixir. Perhaps, Harrison says, the science has come far enough that it makes a more compelling story. "I don't know if we could sell it now," he says. "But we could make a much better presentation to the slickies and the eccentrics!"
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