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Q&A: EMBLEM Director Discusses European Life Sciences Startup Incubator and VC Fund

NEW YORK, Jan 18 - Gabor Lamm, who recently took the helm of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s commercial technology transfer arm EMBLEM, faces a major challenge.

At the end of November 2000, EMBLEM announced it would be creating an International Technology Transfer Center that would serve as a life sciences startup incubator at EMBL’s Heidelberg headquarters. The laboratory also announced it would start a venture capital fund for European startup companies. Lamm, who completed his Ph.D. at EMBL and spent several years as a chemical company executive before taking on this task, spoke to GenomeWeb earlier this week about EMBLEM’s new plans.

GW: Why is EMBL, a center for basic research, starting an effort to support commercial life sciences ventures?

Lamm: In the last 25 years, EMBL has become a turning point for molecular biology basic research, and during that 25 years a lot of intellectual property has been developed. What EMBLEM has wanted to do for the last three or four years is to give something back to the industry—to make sure that the IP and ideas that have been developed in basic research are actually put to industrial use.

One of the reasons technology transfer has become so active at EMBL recently, and why so many scientists are going into business is because of Lion Bioscience, which [started at EMBL], had an IPO in August 2000 and is very successful. EMBLEM has equity in the company. This positive example has triggered a lot of the scientists at EMBL to go into business.

GW: How does the new International Technology Transfer Center facilitate this transition?

Lamm: The point of the ITTC is to ensure that we can nurture and help young startups emerging out of EMBL, provide them with space, with professional management, and with core facilities in an environment that is close to the mother lab. A lot of the scientists in the startups still hold a position with EMBL. There needs to be an umbilical cord between [the startups] and EMBL, but EMBL has to make sure it clearly separates basic research from enterprise management. The member states of EMBL who put up the annual budget would be very unhappy if basic research suffered as a result of [business ventures].

GW: You’re also building a 50 million Euro venture capital fund. Where are the funds going to come from and who is going to manage the company?

Lamm: We would like to have a general partner, a venture capital company to take over the management of the fund. It is not going to be managed by EMBL or EMBLEM. Right now we are in the middle of negotiations with several potential candidates. We’d like to have clear financing put together for the middle of this year. Although the percentages are not fixed yet, part of the fund will be dedicated for investments [in companies] that are emerging out of EMBL facilities. The other part of the fund can be invested in biotech startups.

GW: How are you getting funding for the ITTC itself? Will this money come out of the VC fund?

Lamm: Most of the ITTC will be funded by bank loans using our shares of Lion Biosciences as insurance, and another part will probably come from the state of Germany or the state of Baden-Wurttemberg and industry investors. A lot of private investors would be interested because the ITTC creates startups that create value and provide additional jobs.

GW: When the new venture was announced in November, you said the ITTC startup space would be complete by June 2002. How is the construction coming?

Lamm: In the first phase, we’ll build 6,600 square meters of lab and office space. We are going to integrate the library into technology transfer center, and are going to build a cantine. We are going to have certain core facilities such as computing and a parking garage—[parking] at EMBL is a real problem. In the first phase we will also have material storage for companies, and animal facilities [for animal research]. The second phase will have an additional 8,800 square meters of space.

GW: Do you have any companies already signed on for the incubator space?

Lamm: There are several. Cellzome, which works in proteomics, is in the middle of closing their second round of financing. Cenix, which works on gene function, just closed their first round of financing. Anadys, an established company working on drug discovery with RNA, and Gene Bridges, a genetic engineering company in an early stage—all of these companies are now using temporary space on EMBL grounds, but they all have or will have their own facilities. We are confident that with the companies already established, we will fill the space in no time. But I don’t want to deter other companies that will be forming as the ITTC gets built by the middle or end of 2002.

GW: What types of startups would qualify?

Lamm: Biotech companies in the broadest sense, as long as it’s basic molecular biology or enabling technologies, or computing with molecular biology. It’s better to have a mix of companies in different stages of maturity so they can complement each other and learn from each other. The ITTC is most useful for companies still in the phase where they are developing products and doing proof of principle, where they have to be closely linked to a research facility.

GW: Can a startup get into the ITTC incubator space even if the founders are not scientists at EMBL?

Lamm: The primary mission of the ITTC space is to provide space for startups that emerge out of EMBL, but if the University in Barcelona says ‘we have a good idea, we can benefit from being in the vicinity of EMBL’, they can get space.

On top of that, the ITTC is going to create a forum for technology transfer in a pan-European context. We want to use the ITTC as a training ground for technology transfer professionals in Europe. There are countries not as advanced as the UK or Germany or France. We will have training seminars and investors’ fairs where potential candidates can meet with venture capital investors.

GW: Why do you need a pan-European technology transfer forum?

Lamm: There are numerous technology transfer offices [in Europe.] A lot of universities have them, but hey work in a very local fashion.   We have about 30 nationalities working at EMBL. It is clear that if   [scientists] form a spin-off company and happen to come from Portugal, they will be in Heidelberg for some time, but at some point will want to take their company with them as well. It is one of the aims of EMBLEM to make sure the transfer of technology benefits all of the European states of EMBL, not just Germany.   When we have IP from a certain group we would like to license out, we don’t just talk to German pharmaceutical companies, we also speak to the British and French one.   We like to have a balance.

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