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July 7, 2014 Q&A

Networking program aims to spur bioscience collaboration

Q & A talks about Bioscience ClubhouseCT, a new initiative to spur development of the state's bioscience industry with Susan Froshauer, president and CEO of CURE, a bioscience trade group.

Q: CURE, which serves the bioscience cluster of Connecticut, has created the Bioscience ClubhouseCT. What is the clubhouse and what are you hoping to accomplish with it?

A: Bioscience ClubhouseCT was designed to create an informal meeting space for technologists and entrepreneurs, faculty and mentors, investors and experts in life and healthcare science-related fields to convene and share learnings and pressure test new ideas. The events have been orchestrated in a couple of formats, both of which have been successful.

In one venue a university faculty member discusses his or her research and thoughts on avenues for its commercialization. The information is either non-confidential and/or a patent application has been filed and the confidential information is protected. During a 30-minute presentation, the faculty member presents background on the core team, pertinent data and thoughts on possible medical need and product opportunity.

These are often very early ideas, but the purpose is to use the diverse audience at ClubhouseCT to explore the opportunity, offer insights on the competitive marketplace, make connections to experts with experience in the particular area, examine the opportunity as a licensing or collaboration play with an existing biopharmaceutical company or as the seeds of a new startup.

A second venue is to showcase existing startups that are refining their business plans and looking for help, additional funding and/or contacts. We ask these companies to present a balance of the business and the science side of their company, to share insights into their struggles and to ask participants to delve into a particular problem.

While we initiated Bioscience ClubhouseCT in New Haven, we have spread the community to UConn in Farmington and to southeastern Connecticut in New London and Groton. We are planning another event in Branford, and hope to engage additional communities, where there is a density of ideas, entrepreneurs, experts and technologists interested in connecting around bioscience and growing companies.

Q: Why was ClubhouseCT started?

A: Bioscience ClubhouseCT is the brainchild of my colleague, Usha Pillai, who, about two years ago, with funding from the Economic Development Commission of New Haven recognized the importance of creating a place for technologists, entrepreneurs, experts and investors to convene and share learnings, ideas and opportunities.

While flourishing biotech communities such as La Jolla, Calif. and Cambridge, Mass. have, by their sheer mass, natural mechanisms (from sidewalks to cafes) for sharing information, evaluating ideas, bumping into investors, and supporting each other, our Connecticut community is more dispersed and entrepreneurs often report a disconnection from resources, contacts, and companies, and universities report their difficulty in identifying talent.

As you know, given the changing dynamic of research and development in larger biopharmaceutical companies, and some notable mergers and acquisitions, there has been significant downsizing and restructuring of bioscience companies. Connecticut has lost a certain very high-end workforce as a result. ClubhouseCT recognized that to retain and attract this talent in Connecticut, it was critical to create avenues for building new companies through community, networks and connection. We seek to expand our biosystem by building a larger, complex, rich understory of small companies so that changes in a few larger companies are buffered by growth of many small ones.

Q: How is the ClubhouseCT supported?

A: During the last year, Bioscience ClubhouseCT has been supported by a grant to CURE from the state's CTNEXT program. While it is not particularly expensive to maintain, the resources are still important to continue a focused and committed effort. These funds have enabled us to develop, organize and manage our clubhouse events as well as build a social media component to virtually connect the community.

By supporting a business development function, the funding also enables us to mentor, connect and support early startups and growing companies. In addition to this grant, we receive additional support for event space, marketing, and beer and pizza from UConn, Yale, the Economic Development Commission of New Haven, Pfizer, the Garde Theater in New London and The Grove in New Haven. We would like to find additional sponsorship to allow us to sustain and enhance the programming. It has only just begun.

Q: How would you rate the overall climate for bioscience in CT?

A: Bioscience in Connecticut is in its infancy. While early on companies such as Neurogen, Curagen, 454, Achillion, Genaissance, Rib-X (Melinta), Protein Sciences, Alexion and many others formed, only a handful thrive locally.

Challenges in the U.S. economic climate, public markets and investor risk tolerance have had a severe impact. And, it takes a long, sustained investment in bioscience to build the sector.

The good news is that we are again growing companies here with strong renewed commitment. The state is investing in Bioscience Connecticut in Farmington, Jackson Laboratory has brought talent, new ideas and energy, and the state continues to make pioneering investments in stem cell research and education.

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