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Less than a mile away from the Thousand Oaks campus of Amgen Inc., a building filled with 11,000 square feet of lab, office and conference space opened a few weeks ago. Called the Ventura BioCenter, it is mostly empty – at least for now. A former Amgen scientist, Greg Cauchon, has opened the Conejo Valley’s first biotech incubator, a place where fledgling companies can get inexpensive space and critical professional support so they can get off the ground. “What we want to do is promote the science, offer connections and hopefully give the companies here a better chance of succeeding,” said Cauchon, who in 2005 struggled to found Amethyst Life Sciences Inc., a now successful Thousand Oaks firm that does life sciences research for other companies. Several biopharmaceutical and medical device companies have started up in the area in recent years, including Kythera Biopharmaceuticals Inc., Cynvenio Biosystems Inc. and Atara Biotherapeutics Inc. But even though many of the firms have ties to Amgen or Baxter International Inc., a large Deerfield, Ill. biotech company with an Agoura facility, industry leaders say starting a biotech company in the Conejo Valley can be tough. Cauchon said he has already generated interest from area startups, and is currently in talks with four companies that are looking to move to the BioCenter within the next few weeks. But that is no guarantee the incubator will be successful. Brent Reinke, a partner at Westlake Village law firm Musick, Peeler & Garrett LLP, who specializes in startup acquisitions and venture funding, joined with several biotech professionals in an attempt to launch a similar incubator a few years ago, only to see it never open when the economy fell into recession. “Incubators in general have challenges,” he said. “A lot of the companies there are still really looking for funding to work toward their (products) and the incubator as a whole has to have some level of support.” However, Reinke, who is chairman of the Bio Science Alliance, a local trade group, thinks the BioCenter can be successful. Certainly, the economy is better than it was a few years ago. “The hope is that it does provide somewhere early stage companies can find a wet lab space in a cost-effective way,” he said. Currently, there are several biotech incubators in the Los Angeles area, including one near UCLA and another near CalTech called the Pasadena Bioscience Collaborative. Cauchon said he toured the other incubators to examine their business models and how they have attracted and retained tenants. “The idea is to give entrepreneurs the time and space to work on their idea for a product,” he said. “And they can piggyback off what we know so they can focus on the science.” Housing the science Cauchon came to the Conejo Valley in 1998 to work as a research scientist at Amgen. He worked for the company for nearly eight years, but all the time wanted to do his own research, so he founded Amethyst. Cauchon said he realized the need for incubator space after experiencing difficulty in his own search for lab space in the area. “People believe that this area is great for biotech, and it is in some ways,” he said. “But they all have two bathrooms and two offices and an industrial warehouse. The floor drains, power supply and parking are totally inadequate for lab use.” Amethyst signed the lease on the BioCenter in June, and then conducted an extensive build-out of the industrial structure to make it suitable for research work. It added walls, plumbing for wet labs and lab equipment. Amethyst also has taken space in the building. Cauchon plans to rent space for about $1,200 a month per tenant, including utilities and other expenses. Startups will have access to different configurations of lab space, some office and conference space and some equipment. The number of companies the center can hold will vary depending on the configurations, but it could be as many as 20. Cauchon said providing wet lab space and offices is only part of the incubator’s function. He remembers when he started his own company, how much he didn’t know about entrepreneurship and networking with potential investors. “I had to learn all about that,” Cauchon recalled. So he’s lining up speaker series on science, entrepreneurship and fundraising for the tenants but opening it up to the community. “What I’d like is to create a space where scientists can work and do research and be able to talk to each other,” he said. He also said the companies could become involved – as he did – with Maverick Angels, an Agoura Hills group of angel investors who assist not only with startup funds, but advice, workshops and networking opportunities. “I connected with the Maverick Angels and (co-founder) John Dilts and they really taught me a lot about the financing world,” Cauchon said. Julie Dilts, who co-founded the group with her husband and is now its chief executive, said the BioCenter will also help firms that might be too small to yet attract potential investors. “Having (the BioCenter) as a formalized affiliate is great,” Dilts said. “When we meet startups that might be too early for us to invest in, now we can send them over to Greg.” The incubator is benefitting from its proximity to some of Southern California’s largest biopharmaceutical companies. The chief chemist at Amethyst is also a former Amgen scientist and came to Cauchon after a round of layoffs. “Nobody wants anyone to lose their jobs, but there are always a few in each round of (Amgen) layoffs who have been thinking about starting their own research,” he said. “Maybe they got a wad of cash as severance, but they want to do it without having to be a jack of all trades and manage a property, too. That’s where we can fit in.” Creating a hub But attracting enough companies to fill the space may not be an easy task. Bruce Blomstrom, president of the Pasadena Bioscience Collaborative, says his incubator is not at capacity. With 18 companies currently renting space, there is room for eight more. Companies in the space include Anergix LLC, which is developing cell and gene therapy for multiple sclerosis treatment, and Deton Corp., which is researching tuberculosis and pneumonia treatments. The collaborative opened in 2004, and Blomstrom said it took a while to get companies to move in. “You’re marketing to a group of really specialized people,” he said. “And getting them to know we’re here was a challenge.” Blomstrom said most of the companies that are housed in the collaborative’s 13,000 square feet knew of it through word-of-mouth introductions and associations with trade groups such as the Southern California Biomedical Council. Blomstrom noted that the Ventura Biocenter’s location may give it a leg up. “We’re delighted to have another incubator in the area,” he said. “And up there, in their area, they have a lot of talent.” Ahmed Enany, president of the biomedical council, said the incubator will need to be marketed to the Amgen crowd, through trade groups and networking. He notes that the other incubators are all near a university and have benefited from proximity to intellectual talent. A steady stream of new projects and firms is important in an industry where only two in 10 succeed to any real degree. Still, Enany is optimistic about the incubator. “It’s a nice launch pad to give you a year or two so then you can stand on your own two feet,” he said. “The success can be judged by the ability to take a company to another level and stand on your own two feet.” Cauchon declined to give many details about the four companies he said plan to take space in the incubator, but was willing to generally characterize them. “I’ve found that there are really two types of companies interested in this sort of space,” he said. “There are the single-scientist or small entrepreneur companies and then there are the medium-sized companies who just need lab space for additional research.”

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