Monday, August 3, 2009

Executive Spotlight: Melinda Richter, Executive Director, San Jose BioCenter

Recently I had the chance to meet Melinda Richter, the executive director of the San Jose BioCenter, co-founder and director of the University of California at Berkeley’s BioExec Program, co-founded and director of InnovateMD. Richter currently sits on the governing board of the National Business Incubation Association and the boards of University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business BioExecutive Institute and San Jose State University’s Masters of Biotechnology Program. Read below to learn more about her work at the San Jose BioCenter and why their model of innovation should be replicated to bring cures and therapies to the patients who need them most.

Q: What does the San Jose BioCenter offer?
A: The BioCenter was created in 2004 to fill a need—small companies provided opportunities to fill the gap in large companies’ pipelines, but these small companies were failing because they didn’t have the resources like large companies had to prove out their technologies. The BioCenter model provides big company infrastructure, such as specialized facilities, capital, equipment, laboratory and business staff, for small companies. The BioCenter is a 40,000 sq. ft. facility with half of that space devoted to common research and business areas that we manage for our clients. The other half is comprised of self-contained individual wet-lab suites ranging from 300 to 5,000 sq. ft. From the time a company comes in to the BioCenter, we set up and manage the day-to-day operations of a typical biotech company, from managing hazmat handling/training, permits and regulatory support to providing bulk discounts, legal advice and other support services. We’ve created a very efficient model of innovation that allows small companies to prove out their science quickly and efficiently, cutting down on up-front capital costs and minimizing the risk of operations.

Q: Do you believe your model could be replicated in other regions?
Absolutely. Venture capital firms like to work with us because the first half of their investment usually goes to setting up the infrastructure, buying up equipment, signing leases and ramping up the operations. In our model, the venture capitalist can either choose to put all that money directly toward research or limit their up front investment until the company reaches critical milestones that increases their probability of success.

Q: What has been the greatest achievement of the center to date?
We have recently won two international awards for the BioCenter as a novel yet efficient, common sense model for innovation. We were able to create the model by listening to our market: the small companies, the big companies, the VCs. Because of that, we were able to create the type of infrastructure to help our companies fulfill their potential. For example, Tacere Therapeutics came in with very little money and a year after entering the BioCenter, they signed a $145 million deal with Pfizer and a $60 million deal with Oncolyst. Many innovators come in with little and suddenly they become mature, stable biotechs focused on the research. In fact, we’ve been 100 percent occupied with a wait list for the past three years.

Q: Which types of collaborations do you seek?
The number one collaboration for the BioCenter is with what I call the “buyer.” In this market there is no such thing as an IPO. There are only mergers and acquisitions, partnerships, and licensing or development deals coming from big biopharma. The big companies ultimately are going to benefit from the research being done here so we spend a lot of time getting to know them, finding out what their strategic needs are, what they need to fill their pipeline, etc. Collaborations in other areas include service providers and industry organizations. We are very focused on establishing the right partnerships to help our member companies succeed.

Q: What do you see as the biggest threat or challenge to biomedical innovation?
Lack of early-stage capital. Many great companies with exciting technology will be paralyzed without capital. That being said, I think better companies will rise to the top, but many with potential will disappear. We may see the effects of this in a few years, when we won’t see as much innovation being commercialized.

Q: What keeps you up at night?
I think we’ve hit upon a model that changes the probability of success of innovation but I don’t think we’re replicating it enough. It’s the only way to make the process of innovation faster, less expensive, less risky, and more likely to succeed. This model allows for more innovations in the pipeline; for companies to prove out their technology faster and to bet on the things that win.

Q: As a child, what did you aspire to be as an adult?
I actually wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I wanted to live around the world and report the “real stories,” the politics behind the story. My dad and my grandparents escaped from Prague during World War II. As a kid, my dad always said to us, “I don’t blame Hitler. I blame everyone else who sat around and watched…who didn’t take the time to get educated on what was going on. So your job in life is to be educated on what’s going on in the world.” So I started in journalism in college and loved the intellectual cultivation, but I also grew up in a very poor family and so I wanted to make money as well…I learned that wasn’t in the cards for a foreign correspondent, so I transferred to business and lived all over the world with Corporate America.

Q: Any regrets?
I have lived in many countries and I’m glad I experienced so many different cultures. Then, I nearly died when I lived in China…and that changed my life. I loved that I had the courage to explore and to live life. But after that experience, I knew it was time to give back…to bring my talents to the field of life sciences to help people who may not be as lucky as I was to walk out alive. I know I could be more effective in the field if I had a science background. I work with “street science” right now…kind of fun but I wish I had more to bring to the table.

Q: How do you want people to remember you?
In the first part of my life, I had a motto: Live always, always. And I did that. I explored life. Now in the second half of my life, I want to take the things I have learned and did well and put them to good use. I want to make a difference in this industry. I want to say that because we created this new model, more companies have brought technologies and cures to market so more people have access to life-saving technologies.

Q: What are you currently reading?
Well, this is going to sound odd. I’m reading a book called Flyte because I have a book club with my nine-year old godson. He gives me books to read and then we get together and talk about them…I’m trying to keep him interested in reading. It certainly isn’t War and Peace, but it certainly is meaningful for the two of us.

CHI-Advancing California biomedical research and innovation

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