COVID-19  September 24, 2020

CEO Roundtable: Boulder Valley life sciences industry shines amid COVID crisis

BOULDER — The COVID-19 pandemic is providing an opportunity for the Boulder Valley’s life sciences industry — from pharmaceutical firms, to medical device makers, to University of Colorado research laboratories — to remind the world that this little region in the shadows of the Flatirons punches above its weight.

“We have the infrastructure, support and clearly the people” to compete alongside more established strongholds on the coasts, Novartis Gene Therapies plant manager Sally Dyer said Thursday when biotech executives gathered virtually to discuss the state of the industry during BizWest’s Life Sciences CEO Roundtable. 

It’s been a busy year for area life sciences firms, highlighted by an $11-million acquisition of Array BioPharma Inc. by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE), mergers of high-profile firms such as MBio Diagnostics Inc. and Brava Diagnostics Inc., a changing of the guard at the University of Colorado BioFrontiers Institute, the arrival of major new players Novartis and AGC Biologics, and a host of local firms stepping up to develop treatments, vaccines and tests for the coronavirus. 

The Boulder region’s skilled and highly educated labor pool is a significant contributor to local success in the biosciences field.

“The human capital is here, and it doesn’t leave,” Boulder Ventures Ltd. founder Kyle Lefkoff said. 

CU BioFrontiers Institute executive director Roy Parker agreed, noting the importance of Boulder’s ability to draw talent from around the world.

“Ideas are portable,” he said. “They’ll go where there are people.”

Byron Hewett, president of LightDeck Diagnostics at MBio, said he’s had to bring on a recruiter to help keep up with the firm’s hiring needs.

Mbio, which recently brought in several new team members from out of state, has grown from 25 employees to 65 in a short period of time, he said. 

Fostering a diverse local workforce is something Boulder firms ought to prioritize a bit more, CU professor Kristi Anseth said.

“How can we do a better job of recruiting people from all walks of life?” she asked rhetorically.

Major league acquisitions such as the Pfizer purchase of Array shine a spotlight on the region and increases Boulder’s worldwide esteem. This kind of rising tide can help raise the profile for all local boats.

“We’ve seen an uptick in interest in spending more time with Colorado companies from larger coastal investors,” said Tom Hertzberg, U.S. head of Silicon Valley Bank’s life sciences and health-care unit.  

ARCA Biopharma Inc. CEO Michael Bristow credits Lefkoff with helping put Boulder’s biotech industry on the map.

“In Colorado, there’s one serious venture capitalist,” he said in reference to Lefkoff. “Fortunately, Kyle is ubiquitous and knows every venture capitalist in the world,” so “people look at Colorado favorably.”

Because firms are, for the most part, unable to meet with investors in person, “you have to have a much larger funnel and be having a lot of more conversations at once,” Prima-Temp Inc. CEO Steve Hane said.

Many local firms, including a company spun off from a CU lab, have been active in developing new and faster COVID-19 tests.

Mbio Diagnostics Inc. CEO Christopher Myatt said the pandemic could create a “sea change in people’s outlook” in terms of increasing society’s focus on fast and reliable diagnostics, not just treatments and cures. 

This, he said, could be a boon for local diagnostics films such as Mbio.

“COVID caused in-home diagnostics to be more attractive” to investors and large institutional buyers of testing equipment, MFB Fertility Inc. CEO Amy Beckley said.

The next step for diagnostics firms operating the COVID-19 space is to develop tests that can be self-administered without the involvement of a trained medical professional, Boulder IQ president Jim Kasic said.

On a somewhat related note, Golden Eagle Partners David Traylor predicted that therapeutics, not vaccines, will ultimately prove more important in the fight against viruses such as COVID-19.

While the pandemic provides opportunities for local firms and researchers, it, of course, also comes with challenges. 

Developing creative solutions to health problems requires creativity and collaboration, which can be difficult to achieve if teams are unable to meet in person, Double Helix LLC CEO Leslie Kimerling said. 

Anseth said her lab is working at about half-capacity. Such restrictions “make it hard for large experimental groups,” she said, “but I think it’s been effective and safe.”

Stringent safety measures are critical, Dyer said. 

“If we have a single case come in, that can have devastating consequences,” she said. A COVID-19 case can force whole work groups to quarantine, halting progress on projects.

Onboarding new workers can be particularly challenging when many of their new colleagues are working from home. 

“We’re trying to support them as much as we can,” Dyer said, but being physically separated can make it difficult to fold new workers into a company’s established culture. 

The explosion of new cases among CU students was a hot topic during Thursday’s roundtable, with some challenging the university’s response. 

“I’m concerned about the outbreak at the university,” Hewett said. “I don’t think the university went at it the right way to limit the spread.”

Parker acknowledged that “CU has not done everything the exact right way,” but argued that the vast majority of positive cases are coming from a small cohort of underclassmen, many of whom have attended group parties or Greek life events. 

“I think we’re past our peak,” he said. 

© 2020 BizWest Media LLC

BOULDER — The COVID-19 pandemic is providing an opportunity for the Boulder Valley’s life sciences industry — from pharmaceutical firms, to medical device makers, to University of Colorado research laboratories — to remind the world that this little region in the shadows of the Flatirons punches above its weight.

“We have the infrastructure, support and clearly the people” to compete alongside more established strongholds on the coasts, Novartis Gene Therapies plant manager Sally Dyer said Thursday when biotech executives gathered virtually to discuss the state of the industry during BizWest’s Life Sciences CEO Roundtable. 

It’s been a busy…

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