ITHACA — A new life sciences incubator at Cornell University plans to help young companies get closer to market.
Plenty of early-stage companies in life sciences are swallowed in the so-called “valley of death,” says Lou Walcer, director of the new Kevin M. McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences. They might have enough funding to complete some initial work, but not the money or resources needed to prove an idea’s commercial viability.
“Facilities and programs like ours exist to fill that gap,” Walcer says. “And it is a huge gap.”
The center launched in early February with the help of a $7.5 million gift from the McGovern family, which includes Kevin McGovern, a 1970 Cornell graduate, his wife, Lisa, and their children, Cornell graduates Jarrett and Ashley. Cornell’s Research Division and NYSTAR’s Biotechnology Institute at Cornell also support the center.
The McGovern Center will help companies founded by inventors at Cornell’s Ithaca, Geneva, New York City, and Qatar campuses. Many of those inventors might be brilliant technologists, but need help with the business end of their operations.
Walcer expects to add three full-time staff members in the coming months, two of whom will be dedicated to helping incubator companies with tasks like business planning and attracting investment.
The McGovern Center includes lab space for up to seven companies, including some very early-stage firms that will work month to month on initial research. Other firms will be farther down the road in their development and work with the center on an annual basis.
Most businesses will spend about 18 months in the center, although that timeline is flexible depending on circumstances. The goal is for the firms to leave the program through acquisition by a larger company or with enough outside investment to continue work on their own, Walcer says.
“Two things that are critical in the life of a young life sciences company are time and money,” he adds. “You don’t have a lot of either.”
The McGovern Center will buy its tenants some of both, Walcer says. The facility offers the specialized, expensive equipment young life sciences firms need to commercialize their technologies plus the permits needed to actually do their work.
“Those can take years to get,” Walcer notes.
The center’s first occupant is Glycobia, Inc., which is developing techniques to produce human peptide, protein, and antibody drugs using common bacteria. Matthew DeLisa, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Cornell, founded the firm.
Walcer hopes to announce the center’s second tenant in March. Life sciences, he adds, extends beyond the health-care realm in this case.
While firms working in the pharmaceutical or medical device spaces will certainly be part of the center’s future, companies in areas like horticulture or food technologies are also eligible to be considered as tenants.
There have been fewer venture deals and acquisitions in life sciences in recent years, Walcer says, but those that have closed have been much larger than in the past. It’s becoming expected that institutions like Cornell will help incubate and develop the most promising of the technologies their researchers produce, he explains.
That reduces risk for investors or companies making acquisitions down the line, he says.
The McGovern Center is also striving to keep jobs and investment in Central New York. Left to their own devices, companies like the ones that will populate the facility often wind up in cities with strong life sciences clusters like Boston, Walcer says.