TigerTalks in the City: Entrepreneurship in the Life Sciences
Photo by Sandy SooHoo
TigerTalks in the City: Entrepreneurship in the Life Sciences

Over one hundred Princeton alumni, students and friends filled the seats at WeWork Chelsea to hear an engaging panel discussion about entrepreneurship in the life sciences. The panel featured Shahram Hejazi, Keller Center lecturer, entrepreneur, and partner at BioAdvance; Hahn Kim *07, Director of the Small Molecule Screening Center in the Department of Chemistry and Founder of Crescenta Biosciences; and Craig Limoli ’12, Co-Founder and CEO of WellSheet. PEC’s executive director Anne-Marie Maman moderated the discussion.

PEC Executive Director Anne-Marie Maman ‘84 (far left) with panelists (left to right) Shahram Hejazi, Hahn Kim *07, Craig Limoli ‘12. 

What are the unique challenges that data science adds to life science? Benefits? Drawbacks?

“We’re seeing for the first time a convergence of data science and life sciences,” said Hejazi. “On biotechnology and life sciences, we have tremendous amounts of data we’ve had for a while, but the data science is finally to a point where it enables us to utilize it to help physicians and the whole healthcare world.”

For Kim, the challenge he has observed is how to make connections amongst the large amounts of data that is now available, especially for data in the early stages of research that is more scattered. “As you look down the regulatory pathway, especially if they now require more biomarkers as evidence of the efficacy of your drugs, I think aligning those and making a vertical integration from early stages to the patient level, that will be one of the keys going forward.”

Kim also pointed to Limoli’s company WellSheet and similar platforms as something that could make these connections.

How do you stay current? Are things getting faster? 

According to Kim, drug discovery speed is determined more by the speed of the FDA approval process. But because of speed of feedback loops happening, you can be smarter in interpreting data, and the rate of mistakes will drop, which will result in an acceleration in processes.

Where to focus was important for Limoli, adding that applying these technologies in meaningful ways will address the pain points as driven by the market. “Understanding their (customers’) needs deeply and how that can be met by these new enabling technologies is the key to really prioritizing where to focus.”

From the investor’s perspective, Hejazi said that looking five years down the road was critical. “We see ourselves in some ways as futurists. The way we do that, frankly, is the way anyone else does. You look at some of the major megatrends in science, technology, government, regulatory. Some trends go slower, some go faster. But you really have to look ahead, you can’t look at what’s happening today.”

Precision medicine is a hot topic these days. How is it changing clinical practice, how it will be changing clinical practice, how does it impact companies as you move forward into the market?

Hejazi and others in the space have talking about precision medicine for 15 years or more, but now with the large amounts of data available, targeted therapeutics and personalized medicine are becoming more widespread in favor of the traditional “one-size-fits-all” drug approach. “By having some of the background data, some of the data that WellSheet works on, some of the data that Hahn works on, and everything else that’s coming together, we’re able to do that (create personalized medicine), it’s really becoming a reality.” Importantly, regulatory agencies are starting to keep pace. “They’re realizing they need to catch up,” said Hejazi.     

In Limoli’s experience, “the innovation in that area has been really exciting.” Changes in clinical practice include reimbursement models needing to catch up, incorporating precision medicine into the physician workflow and the patient treatment decision-making. “We’re coming to a convergence,” said Kim, using an example in his current work, using now-available large datasets in real-time to target a protein (in mice) with specific compounds for a specific result.

Photo by Sandy SooHoo.

Highlights from the Q&A session include:

In response to a question regarding innovation coming from non-traditional collaborations, Hejazi answered, “when we analyze a solution, when we analyze the source of the innovation, we do see that those are effective are coming from multidisciplinary backgrounds, for sure.”

On whether electronic medical records have been an accelerant or impediment to innovation in healthcare:

Limoli: in many ways they’ve been an impediment, however from a data perspective, I actually think it’s been tremendous. If you think about it, just ten years ago, it was 10 percent of doctors that were using electronic medical records. And the adoption has spiked to 95 or so percent of physicians on EHRs.”

“That data previously was on paper, now it’s in at least electronic format. It’s not well standardized, it’s not easily digestible, but it’s there. And there’s been an explosion in digital health funding, which is I think is largely related to that factor. There’s so much that Silicon Valley software companies can do now that would have been completely infeasible previously.”

Hejazi: “there’s always been a lot of data on healthcare, what the health care practitioners want is actionable information. And today for the first time in many years, we are seeing that data is being able to be presented to them in actionable form, information that is for them easy to read within their workflow.”

“And that’s very particular from one subspecialty to another subspecialty. Cardiologists, radiologists, oncologists, they want it in a very different way. To throw data at them, is really useless. But we’re not doing that now. We’re actually showing them very end-result, actionable information. That, they really enjoy and like. No physician likes to use EHR, but they like to see actionable information.”

 On what valuation metrics are relevant for investors and entrepreneurs, and are they different:

Hejazi: “It’s much better today to be an entrepreneur than an investor. I think valuations are extremely high, and that’s because of the inflow of significant amount of capital that’s being poured into the life sciences, and especially in digital health by tech investors from both coasts. Any type of traditional valuation method, those are out the door. It’s all around comparables – who pays more for that and who has money and who doesn’t. The valuations we see today, are double to triple than we saw two years ago.”

“The benchmarks are the market – the supply of capital out there. There’s an overflow, an oversupply of capital. You see seed capital firms popping up all over the country. We look for deals that are reasonable and have promising technology.”

Limoli: “I would say early-stage seed investments, it’s really difficult to quantify the likelihood of success of a business model. But I think it’s really important to show tangible market validation that there is an opportunity here that people are really willing to pay for. In the health care space, market size is never an issue. If you can show some significant advantage that’s going to protect you from other people taking that opportunity, I think at an early stage, the combination of those two, and having the team to execute, are probably the main factors that go into investment decision-making. And of course the supply and demand is going to influence the valuation.”

View pictures from the event (via Sandy SooHoo Studio).

Watch the panel discussion here:

— Wright Seneres
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Director or the plutonium refinement in Yonkers.