Weekly Profile Wednesday: Nishta Rao

Wednesday, May 23, 2018
by Wright Seneres

Princeton Innovation Center BioLabs is a collaboration between Princeton University and BioLabs, a nationally-renowned life sciences incubator network, to grow and support the entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem in New Jersey. The 31,000 square foot facility, located in Plainsboro on the Princeton Forrestal Campus, includes wet labs, dry labs and coworking spaces. Ahead of the official ribbon cutting and grand opening on May 17, we spoke to site director Nishta Rao.

Most recently, Rao served as Senior Director of Scientific Operations at Kadmon, a biotech startup based in New York City that focuses on discovery, development, and commercialization of small molecules and biologics. Rao, a molecular biologist by training, has scientific experience both in academia and industry. Rao has also worked at Mt. Sinai Innovation Partners, the technology transfer office at Mt. Sinai as a Business Development Analyst evaluating technologies and developing partnerships aimed towards commercialization of new technologies.

Many scientists are happy to stay at the bench or in academia. What attracted you to entrepreneurship as an endeavor?

I love people and different types of personalities. It takes different types of people to make something work. I enjoy interacting with all those different subsets of people to make an endeavor successful. Whatever that may be – a business endeavor or scientific endeavor. And being in a position where it’s not just science – it became very evident that for example, for a biotech firm to succeed, you needed to have a great scientific idea but you also needed to have so much more than that. You need to have a good business plan, you need to have good funding, good advisors, and that’s what really appeals to me.

There’s lots of great science, but there’s something in interpreting it for people, whether it’s the general public or an investor, to see the value in it. It’s an important link.  

Right, and sometimes that’s the gap too. There’s a lot of great science in academia that doesn’t get translated into the real-world arena. And now more than ever, there’s a push for that to happen. There are all these relationships that are being formed between academia and industry, and I think the goal is to see that translation happen in a quicker, more efficient manner.

Princeton Innovation Center BioLabs is the place for this happen. What would you like to see for the first year?

I would be so happy if within a year, we are half to three-quarters full. Six months ago when I first stepped into this position, it was still a construction zone. Within six months, we signed a couple companies, we’re having a ribbon cutting (on Thursday May 17), the labs are filled with equipment, and people are so interested and supportive of this venture. So it gives me hope that we’ll exceed expectations. I hope within a year we are close to 100 percent full! That would be amazing. Having said that, it’s not a matter of filling the space, it’s filling the space with quality companies.

We want companies that are going to have a positive impact, not just scientifically, but also an impact on society. Of course, we want to create jobs here, but we want to make sure the technologies are going to benefit the community.

Princeton is relatively new to this type of collaboration, specifically with BioLabs. Did that appeal to you as you took the position?

There were many aspects that appealed to me. First, I’ve been on the other side, I’ve been in a startup that’s looking to succeed and doing so in various ways, developmentally, operationally and scientifically. But over here, it’s a different angle of the same situation. Now I’m looking at other startups, and with my experience already having been in a startup, I’ve seen what people go through in trying to be successful. It allows me to be a resource of course, but also help with this platform that Princeton Innovation Center BioLabs provides, trying to get companies to the next level, whatever that might be. Each company is different, they’re at a different stage. So that’s one aspect. 

The second aspect is, like I said before, I’ve always enjoyed working with different types of people. And boy, you get an array of personalities and characters! To me, it’s one of the greatest points of this job, where you get to interact with people that have expertise in so many areas. To be able to interface with that - that’s pretty incredible.

The third thing, as you mentioned, is that Princeton hasn’t really done this before. And to be the first, it’s always special. To be able to have that avenue that university spin-outs could come to, to be able to cater to the local community, develop the local infrastructure, to create an ecosystem for entrepreneurship not just in the life sciences, but also in areas such as solar energy, battery life and medical devices-- I think it’s extraordinary to be a part of all of that. Especially in an environment that really hasn’t done this before.

How many companies are in so far?

Two companies have moved in. One is LabScore, a company that helps patients understand their results, and effectively monitor their internal systems, improving health outcomes. The other one is Shinkei Therapeutics, a company developing products targeting central nervous system (CNS) disorders. The last few months, we’ve been working really hard as a team (with Beth Rowley, lab head, and Pierre Devlaminck, operations associate), to have everything ready. A lot of operational work, a lot of logistical work, plus selection committee meetings to narrow down the companies that we want to be in the facility. It’s a culmination of all the hard work that we’ve done – and have to keep doing, to keep bringing the best technologies in. This is a very tangible part, where you actually see companies moving in, which is very exciting.

Can I say one more thing?

Please do!

The support that we’ve seen from the community, from the State of New Jersey, from other New Jersey academic institutions, pharma, BioNJ for example, it’s been tremendous. You get this feeling that everybody is in this together, everybody is part of a big family, and we all want to help each other, and we all want each other to succeed. It’s a phenomenal feeling when you go into a conference, or when people come in to visit Princeton Innovation Center BioLabs, the support that we’ve been shown has really been great.   

PEC logo // story ender

Princeton Innovation Center BioLabs is the latest effort by the University to further connect the talent and resources on the Princeton campus to the larger ecosystem in New Jersey. Through this collaboration with BioLabs, the University intends to make a significant impact on both the advancement of tech and life science entrepreneurship, and the local and state economy. The facility is located at 303A College Road East in Plainsboro, on the Princeton Forrestal Campus. For more information, visit princetonbiolabs.com.