How to bridge tech and biotech to build a next-gen life sciences startup

The big data movement is redefining the way we approach biotech – and it’s become an opportune destination for engineers and mathematicians.

The big data movement is redefining the way we approach biotech – opening up new opportunities for engineers and mathematicians. It also is helping entrepreneurs launch an entirely new kind of biotech startup – one at the nexus of tech and biotech.

So there’s a lot of talk about how best to entice the tech-savvy into the life sciences – because the silos remain very real. How do we bridge the gap between tech and biotech?

Pieter van Rooyen, CEO of La Jolla-based Edico Genome, recently penned an article for Nature Biotechnology on exactly how he did that. Van Rooyen, an electrical engineer by training, now heads up a high-profile upstart that cuts down next-gen sequencing analysis times from 24 hours to just 18 minutes. Here’s a taste of how he did it:

1. Location, location.

Merely being in San Diego was the first step in building a next-gen biotech. Thanks to Qualcomm, the engineering talent pool was robust – and of course, so’s the life sciences startup scene. This helped spark a successful company that utilizes talent pools in both high tech and the life sciences.

…being located in a renowned cluster for your industry helps with connections. For us, being based in San Diego, which is home to Illumina, Thermo Fisher, Scripps Genomic Medicine at STSI and countless genomics startups, such as Portable Genomics and Cypher Genomics, was (and is) a huge advantage. Often, we are meeting people just down the street from us, and communicating in person is always more powerful than doing so by telephone or e-mail.

2. Be open, humble and curious.

Van Rooyen emphasizes the need for an open mind and willingness to learn – particularly when you’re dealing with an ever-evolving and still-nascent field like bioinformatics. He writes:

I read college textbooks covering chemistry, biochemistry and genomics. I dropped in at my local university and sat in on classes (after obtaining permission first, of course). Those institutions are rich sources of information as well as a good place to meet specialists in the field. But also, don’t be afraid to humble yourself a bit. I bought several “For Dummies” books, which I found were well written and easy to understand.

3. Credibility counts.

Working through an accelerator, Van Rooyen was able to team up with life sciences folks that could supplement his growing knowledge of the industry. Immediately building credibility were the relationships he sparked with Greg Lucier, former Life Technologies CEO, and Eric Topol of Scripps Translational Science Institute.

Also key in amping up the company’s profile – and thus helping build its business – was hiring a crack PR team, he said.

Startups often debate whether or not to bring in a PR firm for it can be very expensive. I’ve found that it pays for itself if your group is sharp, but to help offset the cost, try using your startup currency—equity—to pay for services that you might not be able to afford immediately.

I made hiring a PR firm a priority after our first round of funding, and the results from our heightened profile were above and beyond what I anticipated.

4. Join the pioneers.

A new field is burgeoning around big data converging with health. This calls for talent with unique perspectives, expertise and approaches to problem solving – diverse teams are the ticket. He writes:

It seems likely that in the future, life sciences companies will require a diverse talent pool working together, with geneticists working side by side with engineers and computer scientists. The intersection of these individuals will result in insights that could lead to the development of more smart, innovative products that could ultimately improve patients’ lives. Do not let a background in math or engineering dissuade you from entering this burgeoning field.