Venture capitalization veteran Teri Willey came to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory 18 months ago on a mission: to turn the lab’s life-altering science into bona fide business. As co-founder of seed venture fund ARCH Development Partners, VP of Technology & Business Development at Mount Sinai Medical Center and past president of the Association of University Technology Managers, among other distinguished positions, the University of Idaho graduate (with an MBA from Indiana State) had already shepherded successful tech-related startups and spinoffs in New York City, Chicago and Cambridge, England. She saw a unique opportunity in CSHL’s dynamic history of cutting-edge research; year-and-a-half later, the commercialization connoisseur has learned a few things about the specifics of Long Island R&D, including why funding isn’t the innovation economy’s biggest hurdle.
GENOME WHIZ: In the 1990s, I was a congressional advisor. I sat on a couple of Office of Technology Assessment committees that looked at how we should treat the outcome of the Human Genome Project from an intellectual property standpoint, and whether the patent laws of the time should apply. I find that experience very relevant to the work I’m doing now.
WHY CSHL: I really like that it’s focused so heavily on science and scientists. The ideas that are going to have the greatest impact on us all always come from fundamental research.
PARTS OF THE WHOLE: A lot of my attention has been focused directly on Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, but I’ve also had the pleasure of working with Accelerate Long Island and several other regional groups. One of my observations about Long Island’s new economy, quite frankly, is that, when it comes to innovation and economic development based on scientific breakthroughs, it’s very fragmented. There are a lot of small groups with the right intent – advancing what’s happening on Long Island – but they’re not all working together. There needs to be an honest and concerted effort to work together, and we’re not there yet.
BUSINESS IS AN EXACT SCIENCE: I have the pleasure of working with some of the smartest people in the world. But I want them to continue to work as scientists. I would much rather they work with experienced businesspeople and not be encouraged to take on that role themselves. There are scientists who can do that, of course, but as a general rule, researchers should not try to take on the role of business manager or CFO. They have other skills.
HOW LONG ISLAND STACKS UP: With the exception of Cambridge, I think Long Island – as a business climate – is actually very similar to the other places I’ve worked, in that there is community interest in the commercialization of scientific discoveries. Real community enthusiasm. There are emerging sources of early-stage funding and there’s an appetite for partnering academia and business, with regional benefits.
CLEARING HURDLES: That’s the other thing those places have in common with Long Island: The need to for qualified, experienced management to work with our early-stage companies. We can find money for good projects. We’ve got great science. But you must have individuals who understand product development in whatever sector a company happens to be in and are willing to go to risk with us. We’re working often at the pre-business plan level, so we need to find people willing to work with that, people willing to pull together a plan and work effectively with scientists to reduce the business risks – while raising the money.
EASIER SAID THAN DONE: There’s no doubt, they’re going to be at risk for a year or two before there’s traction, and yes, most early-stage companies fail. Long Island is not alone in that particular struggle; it’s a challenge and we can’t pretend it’s not there. But we are finding those people, the risk-takers who can put together reasonable financing syndicates, and we’ll continue finding them.