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5th Annual BCLA Biotech Summit


A Saturday morning abuzz with excitement at UCLA CNSI’s auditorium filled with students, budding scientists and entrepreneurs to hear Xencor’s CEO and Co-Founder, Bassil Dahiyat’s 20-year story on building out the company now at 150 employees and valued at an impressive $1.85B. Bassil took attendees on his journey beginning at the end of his doctoral studies at Caltech. During his graduate years, Bassil and his doctoral advisor had been working on improving the efficiency of protein design. From this research, Bassil along with an advisor, decided to start a company with the premise of improving the existing methods in protein engineering, focusing on creating more stable protein structures. In order to raise capital, Bassil started his rounds venturing to conferences to meet potential investors for funding. He secured his first big seed funding through a friend met at the conference, a lucky break according to Bassil, and certainly not the last! Soon after raising capital, Bassil realized pharmaceutical companies were interested in parameters relevant to therapeutics such as potency, half-life and decreased dosing and not so much in stable proteins, resulting in the reworking of Xencor’s business model. Consequently, the company needed to invest in resources such as equipment and the personnel to run it increasing costs. To raise more money, Bassil was able to make a few deals with industrial enzyme companies that were engineering proteins and making use of Xencor’s platform.

Now with enough revenue to keep the company afloat and a new direction for Xencor’s business model, it was time for another round of funding. The goal; $15 million, the result; $50 million! This was a time before the dotcom bubble burst where there was an abundance of investors. This was yet another lucky break! In the early 2000’s, Bassil worked on further developing the new direction for Xencor, developing proteins that could be used as drugs. As investment slowed post financial crisis, to further expand the company, Bassil decided to go public. After many weeks and countless hours Xencor secured $80 million necessary to go public. Today, Xencor is one the leading biotech companies in the SoCal area.

Through the cycles of successes and failures, with just enough revenues to stay afloat, experiencing market crashes, and company firings, the common thread is persistence and resourcefulness. During the Q&A session, an audience member asked, “What is more important in being a successful entrepreneur, talent or luck?” to which Bassil responded by saying ‘you need both’ whilst also adding you need to “be persistent until you’re lucky.”

Bassil’s candid and compelling entrepreneurship journey successfully kicked off the BCLA’s 5th Annual Biotech Summit.

Panel I – Changing the Face of Biotech Ecosystem in Los Angeles

Moderator Kat Yalung from Bixel Exchange, the innovation and tech arm at the second largest Chamber of Commerce in the US, is no stranger to fast moving industries such a tech. Kat infused her knowledge, passion and experience to moderate the panelists who gave their perspectives on the changing face of LA’s biotech ecosystem. What followed was an engaging discussion beginning with the acknowledgement about the sheer talent and growing infrastructure for biotechnology to rival and surpass that of San Diego and the Bay area. The panelists agreed that Los Angeles already has the high-quality institutions to support an ever-growing community of entrepreneurs. Furthermore, it is ripe with opportunities for expansion and funding: you can find mature biotech companies, medical centers , venture capital firms, trade associations, research institutes and strategic non-profits and start-ups. Daniel Tellalian, BioLA’s interim CEO, shared how organizations like BioLA are working toward bringing communities together and improving awareness of biotech in LA. To underscore the growing biotech and entrepreneur community in Los Angeles, Anna Skaya, CEO & Founder of Basepaws then shared that she met her business partner at one of BCLA’s previous summits. She suggested that any aspiring entrepreneur should attend similar events, where you can potentially meet future collaborators, hires, founders, etc. Brian Benson, Director of Entrepreneurship of Magnify at CNSI, also shared insightful opinions about how startups can thrive in LA.

Breakout Sessions

After a fascinating and energetic conversation, attendants made their way to a catered lunch eager to participate in the extensive array of mentors featuring relevant topics revolving around career development and a startup studio. The attendees had the opportunity to discuss with professionals about future career choices across various fields including scientific communication, regulatory affairs, R&D, sales, consulting, business development, business operations, field application, project management, and MSL. Also, attendees were able to get advice from successful biotech founders and entrepreneurs about funding, ideation and market strategies, commercialization and accelerator programs.

Panel II – Career paths: Corporate vs Start-ups

The big question in the room, “Should I work for a large company or a start-up?” A question whose answer is more dependent upon having clarity about your own personal goal and aspirations. Helen McBride, entrepreneur in residence at Caltech, led the discussion with insightful tips. Helen offered a peak into the supportive career development environment available to larger institutions like Amgen, with a system to identify and develop star performers. In contrast, a start-up environment is exciting and fast paced with the potential to be exposed to both the science and business, however, with the inherent risks of failure. Pamela Bonar, manager at ZS Associates, shared her career experience at a consulting firm, with a varied exposure of the different areas in biotech. The environment is always changing, which means there is something new to learn. The panel engaged the audience with questions ranging from job stability in startups and corporate, misconceptions about working in either environment, postdocs in pharma versus going directly into a job after grad school, and how to turn ideas into a startup. Juan Espinoza from CHLA share his experience helping startups grow. Fernando Garces from Amgen and Sam Alworth from AcuraStem also engaged the audience with their distinct experience.

STEM Education

Due to the success of last year’s STEM program, the team was really excited to include a separate program for high school and undergraduate students. The STEM program this year was tailored to educate students on the vast career paths within the biotech industry and help them realize what really motivates them and how to succeed in job applications and interviews.

This year the program was extended to a full day of activities with more of an integration into the main summit. Students were given the opportunity to attend the keynote lecture from Xencor CEO, Bassil Dahiyat. The official STEM program started at 10:30am with Thermo Fisher Scientific (TFS) sponsored workshop activities. These workshops were split into 4 different topics; mock interviews, resume building, dream jobs, and interests/skills. Each of these workshops were run by one of the several fantastic volunteers from TFS.

During lunchtime, students were asked to share a bit about themselves and were invited to ask any questions that they had regarding career development. This time also gave the students time to interact with each other in a relaxing setting to help improve networking skills that are vital to the job search strategy.

Finally, and also new to this year’s STEM K12 program, students attended a career panel with a diverse group of people working for the companies, Amgen and TFS as well as the non-profit organization LABioscience Hub. The panel was expertly moderated by Anna Galstyan, a Scientist at Thermo Fisher Scientific. The panelist Yordanos Gebretatios started with a very insightful presentation about her day-to-day as an executive director at the LA Bioscience Hub. She talked about LA Bioscience Hub’s mission and some of the opportunities available to students, including paid internships at local growing bioscience companies and incubators, where students can gain hands-on work experience. Following on from Yordanos, Molly Franken Strole shared with the students her background and career/personal path that ultimately brought her to LA and Thermo Fisher Scientific, where she is currently a Marketing Communications Specialist. Molly gave the students an overview about TFS, a leading biotechnology product development company for diagnostic and life sciences solutions. The last presenter was Jaika Doerfler who is a Scientist at Amgen. Jaika’s journey toward Amgen provided the students with a distinct career path from an academic setting to a multinational biopharmaceutical company. After all the presentations were completed, the floor was open for discussion so that students were able to ask their burning questions directly to the professionals.

We would like to thank all of the TFS representative, panelists and BCLA volunteers for their dedication and passion for helping the younger generation excel in their career paths. We hope that attendees had a fun, educational and informative day with us and we can’t wait for next year!

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