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One year, 1 lab, 16 spinouts

By December 23, 2019November 1st, 2021No Comments

In the early 2000s, Jay Shendure was a graduate student in George Church’s lab at Harvard University. Back then, he says, there was “hardly an inkling” that the lab would become a hotbed of startup activity. Of course, licensing was ongoing, and Church had his tentacles into various companies, but there were only a smattering of ventures coming out of the lab — maybe one every year or so.

Fast forward to 2018, and the drip has turned into a deluge. Some 16 Church- cofounded companies came into being last year (Table 1). And several more added him to their scientific advisory boards (SABs). What explains the slew of ventures and incredible entrepreneurial output of Church’s acolytes? Alumnus Dan Mandell of GRO Biosciences, a 2017 startup he spun out of the lab, puts it down to an ‘esprit de corps’: “We want everybody to succeed but we all know that the odds are not good for any particular biotech startup. All the cofounders share a delusional optimism.” It’s that optimism that keeps them going, he says. “It allows you to function in an environment where the odds are stacked against you but you somehow believe that you are going to make it work.”

Shendure feels the inflection point came in 2010, with the founding of AbVitro by Church and his then-postdoc Francois Vigneault. AbVitro may to this day hold a special place in the annals of startups from the Church lab. After starting from only a little over $3 million in startup funding from a single VC firm, Sante Ventures, in 2012, the company was snapped up by Juno for $125 million four years later. That was followed by Celgene’s purchase of Juno, and more importantly led to several cell therapies now in the investigational new drug (IND) phase, according to Vigneault.

“[Church] never had a really big success until we decided to do AbVitro and that one ended up knocking it out of the ball park. That triggered a lot of people to start companies because it looks easy from the outside,” he says. “It’s not,” he adds.

Whether or not AbVitro was the bellwether, the pace began picking up around 2015, and reached a fevered pitch in 2018.

That year’s rich vintage of ventures come in all shapes and sizes. Most are working with pre-seed or seed funding, but a couple have garnered VC funding. A few have a decent sized team of a dozen or so, whereas others are operating with only a founder or two, who are doing it all. Several have set up shop side by side in one of the incubators in Cambridge, where they share not only core facilities but also war stories.

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