Biotech incubator opens its doors at UC Berkeley

The California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3) at the University of California, Berkeley, will open a new biotech incubator on Thursday, May 6, hoping to duplicate the success of the “QB3 Garage@UCSF,” which has helped birth more than 28 biotech startups since 2006.

Wesley Chang of Aperys explains his company's method for producing neural culture substrates

In the QB3 Garage@Berkeley, Wesley Chang of Aperys (right) explains his company's method for producing neural culture substrates to (from left) Douglas Crawford, QB3@Berkeley Director Susan Marqusee and Paul Lum. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Recent UC Berkeley Ph.D. graduate Wesley Chang is the QB3 Garage@Berkeley’s first tenant, occupying one-eighth of an 800-square-foot windowless basement room in the campus’s Stanley Hall, and saving a lot on the costs of getting his new company, Aperys, LLC, off the ground.

“This is a good fit for us, because we have access to the Biomolecular Nanotechnology Center, which is right across the hall,” said Chang, a former UC San Francisco post-doctoral fellow who hopes to sell specialized cell culture platforms that allow researchers to grow nerve cells in precise patterns to simplify experiments. “With the mixed capabilities here, including microfabrication and cell culture labs, we can do our research without having to put up our own infrastructure.”

Early-stage costs, including lab space and expensive equipment, are a big hurdle for start-ups, which typically have few investors. Chang, for example, has a small business grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to tide him over until the next phase of funding, whether it’s additional federal funding, venture capital or from angel investors.

“I’m even now applying for money that will allow us to move on to the next phase, and at the same time to start building a base of customers that potentially could be recurring customers for our devices,” he said.

Within two years, it’s expected that Aperys will be out the door to make room for other nascent companies.

“We hope that this business incubator will jumpstart new companies with origins in UC research labs,” said Susan Marqusee, director of QB3’s UC Berkeley branch and a professor of molecular and cell biology. “These are almost pre-start-ups that would find it hard to lease the small amount of space they need. Instead, they can rent a small amount of bench space from the QB3 Garage@Berkeley, benefit from our core research facilities and world-class scientists and engineers, and get themselves ready to move to the next level. It’s our hope that this innovative approach will help ensure that discoveries made by QB3 and UC Berkeley researchers will achieve their potential.”

The garage model proved successful at QB3’s University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) branch, where many of the 28 original start-ups on the UCSF Mission Bay campus and in the surrounding neighborhood have successfully landed follow-on funding, and one has already been purchased by larger companies. Sixteen of those companies were launched in the past year.

“Only two of the 28 startups have failed, which is pretty amazing,” said Douglas Crawford, associate executive director of QB3 at UCSF Mission Bay.

The UC Berkeley and UCSF QB3 garages are part of the larger QB3 Mission Bay Incubator Network that leverages private money to nurture start-ups in the vibrant scientific atmospheres surrounding the two campuses. The network is a public-private partnership between QB3, the city of San Francisco; the San Francisco Center for Economic Development/Chamber of Commerce; FibroGen, Inc.; and Alexandria Real Estate.

One of the first tenants of UCSF’s garage was Cristian Ionescu-Zanetti, a former post-doctoral researcher with UC Berkeley’s Luke Lee, professor of bioengineering. Ionescu-Zanetti is now CTO of Fluxion Biosciences, Inc., which markets microfluidic systems for improved cell analysis. Now in its own quarters in San Francisco, Fluxion is expanding its customer base in Asia and last year won a $1.8 million grant from the NIH to further develop its high-throughput screening technique in order to discover new anti-microbial drugs.

Aperys’s Chang and a half-time employee are still moving into their 100-square foot garage space at UC Berkeley, but they’re eager to interact with the scientists around them.

“The product we are developing is specifically targeted toward the research environment, so there potentially are a lot of collaborators upstairs or within walking distance with whom we could work, and for whom we could provide easy-to-use cell culture substrates that will make their experiments go faster,” Chang said.

The opening celebration for the QB3 Garage@Berkeley is open to the public, and is scheduled for 4-6 p.m. on Thursday, May 6, in the Stanley Hall atrium.

For more about technology incubators on UC campuses, check out the UCOP Web site.

For further information:

QB3 incubator network