Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center’s start-up “incubator,” which has grown up around Doylestown’s Baruch S. Blumberg Institute for cancer and hepatitis research, says it’s raising a $50 million investment fund and adding a second, 50,000-square-foot building and a bio-accelerator program to attract new drug and medical device firms to its Bucks County campus.
The fund, dubbed Hatch BioFund Management LLC, will be run by former West Pharmaceuticals executive turned investment banker Vladimir Walko.
A Villanova- and Stanford-trained engineer, Walko says he’s been lobbying New Jersey and Philadelphia-area biotech companies, Ben Franklin Technology Partners, and other investors to raise capital since leaving financial services firm Janney Montgomery Scott to head the new effort last fall.
He hopes to announce at least half the total has been committed by November. “After Boston and San Francisco, Philadelphia is the next big biotech hub” — and far more affordable, Walko said. “This is the next big place.”
One thing Philadelphia has lacked: indigenous biotech investment capital. Quaker BioVentures and other area funds failed to generate investor profits from new drugs and device companies in the 2000s. Since then, successful locally based investment firms such as LLR Partners, NewSpring Capital, and First Round Capital have typically focused on software, later-stage companies, mostly based outside the region.
Last year, University of Pennsylvania trustees voted $50 million to back professor-founded start-ups, joining out-of-state, Chinese and European investors betting on gene therapies developed in University City.
Walko says he was recruited to start the center’s fund by Blumberg leaders, including cofounder Tim Block and secretary Lou Kassa, whom he met after a tour of the site while still at Janney. Visiting with a group of biotech entrepreneurs from Shanghai, he decided, “We have a gem here," and became determined to help expand it.
He noted the management team has also been contracted to manage another planned biotech incubator — The Discovery Labs -- in part of the 1.6 million-square-foot former GlaxoSmithKline pill factory near King of Prussia — by its developer, MLP Ventures, including Brian O’Neill and his partners.
They hope to turn that Montgomery County site into a suburban version of the start-up centers in Philadelphia’s University City, and the tech neighborhoods that have grown up adjoining the Princeton and University of Delaware campuses.
About 300 people work at the existing Doylestown incubator and offices, in a former printing plant. “We’ve had about 70 companies come through in the past 15 years,” with several going public or getting sold to Big Pharma firms at fat prices, Walko adds.
The incubator counts as success stories firms, such as publicly traded Arbutus Biopharma, whose scientific founder, Michael Sofia, won the Lasker Prize in 2016 for developing a hepatitis C treatment; Novira Therapeutics, acquired by Johnson & Johnson for more than $600 million two years ago; and Callidus Biopharma, acquired by Amicus Therapeutics for $130 million; among others.
Bucks County officials have earmarked a portion of the county pension plan for backing local biotech start-ups.
Since opening its doors to start-ups, the Blumberg foundation has licensed some of the drugs developed at the center, but until now, has not owned equity enabling it to share the big profits.
The new fund will enable the foundation to do that, along with Walko and other individual investors. Putting prospective investments on site is a good opportunity for investors, he added. “We put ’em to bed at night, wake ’em up in the morning, get to know 'em well, and invest in the ones we like,” he told me.
An Academic Entrepreneurship Program targeting professors at Penn, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Wistar Institute, Villanova, and other member schools will offer paid sabbaticals to "start a company and get some ownership,” alongside their college, the institute, and its leaders.
They are also looking for accredited investors — people with a net worth of more than $1 million, available to invest at least $250,000.
The center is one of 29 Keystone Innovation Zones, offering Pennsylvania state tax breaks to companies based there.