August 2010

Starting Up a Startup

QB3 also provides funding for work that is, as Crawford says, “too applied for the National Institutes of Health,” but not developed enough for venture capitalists – for example, the validation work that follows up on promising compounds generated by high-throughput screening experiments. “The NIH will fund screening for therapeutic hits,” notes Crawford, “but from there to clinical [trials] is a gap of $20-40 million” for further work on chemistry, toxicity and other research that might be considered less scientifically interesting. Through grants such as the Rogers award, QB3 assists companies like Omniox in their early years.

Companies housed in the QB3 Garages also have access to what Crawford calls the “intellectual vitality at the university.” There are countless seminars on both science and entrepreneurship, and QB3 provides a valuable shared experience between nascent companies.

Casting a Wide Net

As one might expect, there’s a huge demand for the resources available through QB3. Crawford estimates he receives between two and four inquiries a week from companies (the majority of which have some UC connection) who want to join the network. Currently, there still is space available in the QB3 Garages, but competition is fierce.

For more information

Small Business Innovation Research Program, National Cancer Institute.

QB3 Incubator Network

• Omniox Inc.

• Report from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation: “Accelerating the Commercialization of University Innovation

• Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology. 

Initially, when the UCSF Garage first opened in 2006, QB3 performed rigorous reviews to evaluate the scientific and commercial merits of each start-up. Since then, they’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a better way of doing it. “We really want to have a very wide net on the science,” says Crawford. Instead of focusing on a specific scientific area or therapeutic need, they look for people who are passionate and have demonstrated the initiative to guide a start-up through the challenges of the so-called Valley of Death. “Biotechs are where the really innovative stuff happens,” Crawford explains. They adapt, depending on how the science goes and what the market wants. The best start-ups aren’t sidetracked by failure. Instead, they find success on another path, which is why Crawford thinks passionate people make exceptional entrepreneurs.

This strategy seems to be working: of the six companies first housed in the UCSF Garage, four secured venture funding and a fifth was acquired by Affymetrix. There currently are 25 companies in the Incubator Network, and Crawford expects to expand to 30 in the next year. As the economy recovers, other opportunities for biotech start-ups are bound to increase as well. Crawford’s advice for budding entrepreneurs? Just do it. “It will be one of the most stimulating things you’ll ever do,” he says.

Cary might agree: his company is halfway through a two-year term in the UCSF garage. “QB3 has supported Omniox from its very early stages,” he says. His company recently received half a million dollars through a Bridge Award from a Small Business Innovation Research Program financed by the National Cancer Institute. Omniox’s funding finally is falling into place; at the same time, its science is moving forward constantly— proof that, as Cary says, “you don’t have to be at a university to do good science.”

Leslie W. Chinn ( is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute.


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