NoCoBio incubates lofty five-year goal

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FORT COLLINS – Mike Handley wants to help Northern Colorado life-science companies move their products to the marketplace.

Handley, appointed president of the Northern Colorado Bioscience Cluster in January, has an ambitious goal of helping to create 25 viable life-science companies over the next five years. The target also involves helping create 250 jobs, each paying more than $70,000 annually, according to the organization’s strategic plan.

To achieve his objective, Handley plans to connect Northern Colorado life-science companies with everything from capital to licensing deals, he said.

“Our focus is to help start companies and then help companies that are here grow bigger,” he said.

A graduate of Colorado State University with degrees in molecular biology and exercise physiology, Handley has worked in multiple positions in the life-sciences sector in his 17-year career.

His experience includes roles such as vice president of Minnow Medical, now called Vessix Vascular; vice president of global regulatory compliance for Colorado Springs-based Spectranetics Corp.; and CEO of Accela Inc. Today, he serves as executive director and senior managing partner of Level 5 Partners, a venture capital firm that owns eight bioscience companies.

Handley spends part of his week in San Francisco and, when here, works in a Rocky Mountain Innosphere office. “Coming out here opened my eyes that I could contribute a lot to the life-sciences community out here and help facilitate bioscience growth,” Handley said.

Question: What’s the state of the Northern Colorado bioscience industry?

Answer: We did an assessment of all the companies in the life-science space in Northern Colorado. It’s grown, but the recession, as with most industries and companies, had an effect. We haven’t seen the strong growth curve that you saw early in the decade. So what we want to do is help right that track. Part of it is the recession, the economy, and part of it is attracting capital and sources of intellectual property and other groups to the area to help facilitate a stronger critical mass for the life-sciences industry. The more companies we have with products on the market generating cash flow, the better off Northern Colorado will be. Right now, we’re just not there. We don’t have enough life-sciences companies that actually have approved products that are generating sales and generating cash flow. But we do have a lot of good companies here that almost are there, but they need more capital or some strategic guidance on how to get to the marketplace.

Q: What is the Northern Colorado Bioscience Cluster?

A: I’ve never been involved in “NoCoBio,” had no inkling of what it was six months ago. At one time, there was a pretty strong NoCoBio presence. I think what we have now is an opportunity to create a Northern Colorado-focused life-science group that will help current companies grow and then help new companies start up. We want to do that in strong partnership with CBSA (Colorado BioScience Association). I picture us as more the Northern Colorado voice for CBSA. Some of the things that we’re working on right now is we’re going to basically have a CEO sandbox for all the C-level folks here. We’re going to be able to get together on a regular basis; we’re thinking monthly or quarterly right now. We’re going to be working closely with CBSA on fundraising efforts. There’s a movement right now to create a new technology fund out of the (state Public Employees’ Retirement Association) and use some money from them. Nothing’s solidified yet but our interest is to develop more localized capital, then make sure we get all the bioscience folks here in the local community together and talking to each other. There seems to be this artificial boundary between Fort Collins and Boulder-Denver. I would like to get more interaction between CU-Denver and what they’re doing and perhaps get some events that are co-sponsored that we try to get the Boulder-Denver people up here and likewise we try to get the Fort Collins people down there to more events.

Q: What are your goals for the group this year?

A: I think having folks look at non-diluted funding and also diluted funding mechanisms is very important and training them how to do that. There’s a lot of focus, rightfully so, on helping local entrepreneurs in a way that they understand what they need to pitch and how they need to pitch it to venture capitalists.

Q: How do you do all this during a time when venture capital is drying up?

A: I think we have half the number of venture capitalists in the life sciences than we did five years ago. It’s a problem that I think can be overcome. One can say I’m an optimist on that. What I tell startup companies that have technologies that are applicable to larger strategic companies is there’s not a lack of demand for new products. The new companies out there should be focusing on the Pfizers, the Abbotts, the Medtronics, the Mercks of the world. Those guys have a need for new products as great as any time in their history. I don’t believe there’s a lack of capital; I think there needs to be a redirection or refocus where the capital needs to come from. I think venture capital is no longer the primary mode of investment for a lot of startups in the life sciences. The primary mode of investment should be, if it hasn’t been redirected already, to find a strategic partner that will help fund you or pay for the development cost and then move your company forward.

Q: Have you seen success so far?

A: What we want to do takes funding, so (Innosphere CEO Mike Freeman) and I have been working on that. We’ve got some funding for NoCoBio through several groups. It’s starting to ramp up. We kind of had a slow start. Some of it’s my bandwidth because I’ve got my firm, Level 5, and several companies that I own. I’m also advisor to multiple public and private entities. But you’re going to see a lot more information come out about NoCoBio planning, where our strategic focus is going to be, our meetings, our partnership with CBSA. So I think we’re starting to see some success, but it’s not going to be overnight. We’re going to provide value. We’re not just a forum to get together and drink some beers. We’re actually here helping you get introductions to capital, defining commercialization strategies. The real successes will come later this year.

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