Two years after starting the IndieBio NY program as its Managing Director, Dr. Stephen Chambers, PhD, SOSV named him a general partner.
Stephen has been active in synthetic biology for 3 decades and founded multiple organizations. Immediately prior to joining IndieBio in 2020, Stephen was Royal Society Entrepreneur in Residence at Imperial College London where he helping commercialise world-leading research and address skills gaps in the emerging synthetic biology ecosystem.
Before that, he was co-founder of several organizations including London’s BioStart accelerator, SynbiCITE (an innovation and knowledge centre for synthetic biology), Abpro (producing novel antibodies & proteins for biomedical research) and had a 17-years tenure as founding scientist and Director of Gene Expression at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, one of the first biotech firms to use an explicit strategy of rational drug design rather than combinatorial chemistry.
Stephen holds degrees in Molecular Biology from the University of Warwick (PhD), Biotechnology from the University of Birmingham (MS) and Biochemistry from Bangor University (BS).
Here are a few questions for Stephen:
Dr. Chambers, you’re a bona fide Ph.D. in molecular biology. What attracted you to this field?
Please call me Stephen 🙂
Well, I didn’t start as a Molecular Biologist. I grew up watching Jacques Cousteau explore the undersea world on TV and initially wanted to study Marine Biology. However, I soon transferred to the less flashy but more employable Biochemistry degree and followed that with a Master’s in Biotechnology. At that time, there was an international moratorium on genetic engineering, and the only place in the world where this work could be performed and scaled up was Porton Down in the UK. This is where I did my Ph.D. in Molecular Biology and, in retrospect, was where I caught the startup fever—working alongside Biotech startups, like Biogen and Genentech, using the containment facilities and large-scale fermentors only available at Porton Down. After that, I joined Vertex in the US, as one of their founding scientists; Vertex was one of the first pharma companies to successfully utilize molecular biology in the drug design process.
You’ve been a serial founder of biotech companies and a big supporter of the UK’s synbio scene. What lessons did you learn on the way?
Through these experiences, I’ve been fortunate to have worked on numerous drug discovery & development programs, both small-molecule and biologics, resulting in regulatory approvals. And while I share the insights gained from those successful experiences with IndieBio startup founders, I make it a point also to convey what I learned from my many failed projects. Interestingly, I’ve found these are the most valuable lessons.
It’s easy to become pessimistic about the commercialization of science because the probability of failure is high in Biotech. It’s much harder to be optimistic when the odds are so poor. While founders must follow the data, they also need to create an alternative reality for themselves and their company with the belief that they can overcome the many challenges ahead.
Why do you think synbio matters so much today?
Molecular biology was always a very artisan process, highly variable, and not easily transferable or scalable. Synthetic biology can substantially increase predictability by applying engineering principles to biological processes. This shift towards synthetic biology matters because it is seeking to solve some of the biggest societal and environmental problems we face.
How did you get involved with IndieBio?
I followed what Arvind Gupta was doing in SF and Bill Liao in Cork with RebelBio. I visited the Jessie Street labs during a Synbiobeta conference and was very impressed with the team and the companies coming out of the program. I ran BioStart, a synbio pre-accelerator program in London, so when RebelBio relocated to the UK, I reached out to them to help with connectivity and mentored some companies – I feel like that is how many get involved in IndieBio.
Today’s reality is that early-stage investors are all looking for a founding team capable of executing a realistic scientific plan and business model to deliver asset-generating revenues.
You opened IndieBio’s NY office right when Covid hit. How did that work?
Amazingly well. We opened just as Covid closed New York. But thanks to Po and the SF team who shared their insights and playbook, and the heroic efforts of the NY team – Alex, Lindsay, Xavier, Julie, Gwen, Sam, Rodrigo, and more recently, Maddy and Sabriya – we recruited great founders and companies into the program and prepared them for the entrepreneurial journey ahead. The results are there: 90% of the first cohort in IBNY received seed financing, and the subsequent three cohorts continue to impress, raising over $50M.
What do you think could be done to get more biotech scientists to build startups?
Entrepreneurship is the art of creating something out of nothing and founders are on a constant search for scarce resources. For any scientist, starting a company is like visiting a foreign country for the first time: you need a guide to help with the language, the customs, what to do, where to go, who to see, and hundreds of other insights that make the journey less stressful. I like to think of IndieBio as a welcoming community of peers who will help you pack the right stuff and learn the right things for your journey, providing supportive resources and removing the barriers for biotech scientists wanting to build startups.
What key differences do you see between the biotech startup scenes in SF, NY and the UK?
The New York ecosystem is behind SF in terms of the numbers of biotech startups. But the raw material for success is there, with well-funded world-leading universities and research institutions, graduating the most bioscientists in the US. New York is also home to 12 of the world’s top 20 biopharmaceutical companies. The lack of resources, particularly the first check for early-stage life science companies, has been attributed to the lack of startup activity – and this is where IndieBio can help founders in New York.
I think the difference between coasts is oversimplified: “West-Coast investors with a tech background are more early-stage, founder-driven”, while “East Coast investors with Pharma backgrounds are only interested in a clinically ready asset”. Today’s reality is that early-stage investors are all looking for a founding team capable of executing a realistic scientific plan and business model to deliver asset-generating revenues.
Compared to the US, the UK doesn’t have a robust startup tradition in Biotech, and while the ecosystem is growing fast, it is still much smaller than in the US. And since this is a numbers game, more startups and more shots on goal results in more success. The UK still doesn’t have the critical mass of life science startup companies we have in Boston and SF and starting to see in NY. Biotech is now global, so many UK biotech startups are increasingly looking to the US for resources, investment, and markets – which is good news for IndieBio.