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From Newsroom to BioBoom

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What can a former business reporter do for bioinformatics companies?

By Michael Rosenwald

 

Thomas Petzinger Jr. carefully designed his 19,000-square-foot Pittsburgh office space to feature large open areas with plenty of nooks and crannies. And, most importantly, everything in this brand-new bioinformatics company will center around a kitchen.

Yes, a kitchen. And Petzinger, a 45-year-old former Wall Street Journal reporter, says he will cook up more than your average bioinformatics incubator.

His firm, Launchcyte, intends to foster ideas and companies that merge biology and computers at an embryonic stage and then help them grow up to become applicable and prosperous. The company recently completed its first round of funding, banking some $2 million of angel investor money, including $150,000 of Petzinger’s own family money. Though he expects his efforts could make him quite wealthy, Petzinger isn’t just some rich guy who decided to jump into the biotech world to get richer.

Throughout his 22-year career at the Journal, Petzinger learned a bit about business. He covered the collapse of the steel industry in his birthplace of Youngstown, Ohio. And then a few years ago, on his reporting travels around the country, Petzinger began running into people doing business in ways diametrically opposed to the ideals that once guided steel mills and other old sectors of the economy. As he explored these people and the companies in a column called Front Lines, many people credited Petzinger with stumbling onto the new economy.

Mike Miller, an editor at the Journal, says one of Petzinger’s strengths was understanding the role of biology in business. “It became the unspoken running theme of his column, how models from biology apply to the way organizations work, and in particular small companies,” Miller says.

What did Petzinger learn from his business reporting? That successful entrepreneurship depends on the exchange of ideas from creative and intelligent people.

Hence the kitchen, which he says has been a meeting place throughout time. He’s hoping lots of great discussion and ideas are exchanged over the stove.

One of Petzinger’s directors is Ian Williams, who heads worldwide discovery strategy for Pfizer and will be involved in determing Launchcyte’s overall direction and what technologies it will pursue. Others included in Petzinger’s effort: a chief of neurology at a major hospital, software license experts, the former chief technology officer for Lycos, experts in algorithms, scholars on the new economy, and a pioneer of molecular self-assembly systems.

But that’s only the beginning. More specifically, Launchcyte has a number of plans for resources to help early-stage companies grow. There will be seed capital ranging from $100,000 to $500,000, introductions to other funding from third-party investors, physical lab space in the cutting-edge offices, and access to the advisory team whose members help counsel on technical and marketplace vision. The idea is to have the first Launchcyte company “go to the moon” in year three or four.

So far, Petzinger is thrilled. Launchcyte has 11 full-time employees. The $2 million that he already secured gives him hope that there is plenty of money out there for his idea, especially since much of that funding was completed at the beginning of the tech market’s backslide. But what is most exciting for Petzinger is the opportunity to really do something new. The future of biological and medical research, he reasons, is going to be about finding patterns. And the idea of merging biology with computers with business to come up with, say, a software tool to unravel a gene or protein’s transcription data fascinates him.

Enthusiasm aside, it still comes down to a reporter trying to start a bioinformatics incubator. What qualifies him?

“If you want someone with experience running a highly creative, highly collaborative organization in the most competitive industry in the world, where the product, day in and day out, depends on perfect accuracy,” Petzinger says, “then hire someone who has managed a large newsroom.”

But the real draw may stem from another trait.

Miller says, “Even though he’s not a PhD biologist himself, he has a grasp of it that’s much better than the usual quick and dirty journalist.”

Petzinger is, after all, a self-professed science geek — at least among his colleagues. Whether those traits will transfer to a world of practiced science geeks is anybody’s guess.

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