A scientist – biologist for more signs – turned into an investor. It is not the most common profile, but for Montserrat Vendrell (Barcelona, 1964) it is a natural evolution. "To invest in this sector you have to know a lot about science, know the entrepreneurs and know who knows what and who to call." She tells us in her office in Barcelona, about to go to Budapest to receive the EIT Woman prize from the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), to which she was nominated.
Vendrell does not go unnoticed in the ecosystem. He was part of the founding team of the Science Park of Barcelona, which he also directed. After 10 years that included setting up the park's first incubator, 70 companies and three research centers, the blanket was put to the fore for the creation of Biocat, a cluster whose mission was – and is – to implement public-private policies for this sector , in collaboration with universities, research centers, pharmaceutical companies, business schools and other stakeholders. "We were pioneers in promoting the sector as an economic engine and channeling it through internationalization, development of entrepreneurial talent and work in visibility," he says.
In Spain, very good science is being done and there is little investment for the number of researchers ".
Vendrell defines himself as "a person who starts projects". He happened to meet Guy Paul Nohra, a renowned biotechnology investor in Silicon Valley, who saw that Vendrell had an eye for startups and proposed to partner to set up Alta Life Sciences (Alta LS) in Barcelona in 2017.
What is the current situation of Alta LS?
We are partners of Altamar, which manage 6,000 million euros, normally funds of funds. Ours is his first direct fund. Our goal is to get 120 million euros, which is not easy. Our investment flow is more than 250 companies in just over a year. We can not cope. The funds in Spain in this sector can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
What strategy and criteria govern your investments?
We want to invest both in companies in early stages, to be able to continue investing in later stages, as in more consolidated stages, to balance the risk. Above all, we focus on Spain. Here it is very good science and the science-investor ratio is still high: there is little investment for the number of researchers in Spain. However, we are also exploring investing in other sites, or bringing American startup technologies here.
Regarding the criteria, we look for first class science: that is well published and in a superinnovative space, that industrial property is insured and that there are patents on which to build a value proposal. We also consider the size of the market, by volume or by price; the panorama of competitors in the field and the regulatory strategy. And, of course, the founder or founder and the team are key. Then there are intangibles, small elements that intuition tells you can be a good investment.
What is your main focus?
The drugs will account for almost 50% of our investments. Especially personalized medicine. Of course, not in stages of early development but when they begin to make tests in humans or a year earlier.
And in earlier stages who invests?
There are other funds that do it. The financing comes more from public funds, from large family groups or from companies that seek innovation or social responsibility. Crowdfunding is also becoming fashionable. Here [en Barcelona] There is Capital Cell, which does it very well.
Is it hard to invest in biotechnology?
Not really. It has very high returns and more milestones along the way, in addition to potential outlets much greater than other sectors. It requires more capital but, if the conditions are good, it's worth it. The big US funds say that they have before in biotechnology that in information technology, for example. In four years you could buy a pharmacy.
And in Spain?
The Spanish Association of Biocompanies (Asebio) will be 10 years old in 2019 and is proud to see how the sector has evolved, success stories … It is a branch that needs its cooking time but, in addition to the high returns, it has a great impact on the talent that forms. This helps create a dense web of entrepreneurs and experts who go from one place to another, as it happens in Silicon Valley or in more mature clusters. What is the most difficult sector? The one of the medical devices begins to be it. There are already large funds that are starting to take them out of their portfolio because profitability is not very different from sectors such as biotechnology and the market is dominated by few major players such as Medtronic or Johnson and Johnson. In addition, the regulatory approval process is very hard.
How is the e-health area?
Digital health rises like foam. No one yet knows very well how to monetize these investments, but everyone invests in this area. It is buying vices of crazy investments to the Elon Musk or Facebook.
Because of the potential of data science, which are the future of the life sciences. What you generate with your activity, with the use of your devices, with the tests you do, what you consult … All that is a data cloud that defines you as a person and with all that repository you can do many things. Google has set up Calico and the rest of the great technology companies are also entering the health sector, which indicates how attractive that space is. Our strategy in this case is to make small investments to enter the sector.
Do we have to invest in basic science?
Basic science is essential. Thanks to it, Biocat is among the best European biotechnology clusters. What you can not do is finance everything. We must seek excellence and prioritize good science, finance people (good researchers) and good projects, as do the national plans and other Europeans such as Horizon 2020. Only this way it is explained that we have in Spain a number one center in the world of photonics (ICFO) or the CRG, a center among the 10 best in genomics.
What is the biggest challenge in the life sciences sector?
Have a balance in the outputs for our companies. That the market creates it, that the big pharma companies continue to be interested in introducing innovations in these sectors into their portfolios, so that at the regulatory level there are no more obstacles.
Would something change in regulation?
Find faster methods to find solutions to unattended health problems that reach the market before. It can be done with associations, with patient foundations, with hospitals, through innovative purchase of products and other modalities that allow you to share the risk, to move forward without compromising safety.
Do you innovate in the big pharma?
Because of the model they have, it is very difficult for them to cover everything. They have to be increasingly efficient because the cost of launching a drug to the market has increased and the number of new drugs has decreased. There is an innovation gap that they have to solve and that goes through partnerships with small companies, co-investing in startups with venture capital funds, creating corporate funds … Look for innovation outside, with good areas of business development.