When Barbara Schilberg was wrapping up her fourth job in senior management at a biotech company and looking for her next opportunity, she made a discovery that she says shocked her. "I realized there weren't that many small startup companies in the region, and it was a shame because I had all this great experience."
As Shilberg cast about in vain for a new generation of life science startups, she heard of an opportunity to help create one. Pennsylvania was using $33.8 million from its tobacco settlement to set up a "greenhouse" for supporting biotech businesses in the southeastern part of the state. So in 2002 Schilberg was named managing director and chief executive officer of the state-funded initiative BioAdvance, which has since invested $11.5 million in seed capital to 21 companies and nine preseed stage projects. They, in turn, have gone on to raise an additional $200 million on their own.
Colleagues agree that Schilberg's hard work, people savvy, and enthusiasm have played a major role in making Greater Philadelphia fertile ground for new life science companies. "BioAdvance is probably our best friend in translational research, because they are so willing to go so early to the trenches," says Banu Onaral, director of the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science & Health Systems at Drexel University in Philadelphia. With her vision and ambition, Onaral adds, "Schilberg could be the poster woman for the region."
"The thing I like about Barbara is that she has a very open mind," says Chris Cashman, president and CEO of Protez Pharmaceuticals in Malvern, Pa., which is developing novel antibiotics to fight drug-resistant hospital infections and received seed funding from BioAdvance. "I think she understands the realities of small startups. She exercises very good judgment on various issues that come up with small companies."
Schilberg has been instrumental in creating an environment where startups have an easier time finding the $1 million or $2 million they need to get a company off the ground, Cashman adds. "It's fairly easy to raise the capital, and Barbara's a big piece of that."
BioAdvance uses old-fashioned seed investment to fund companies, which Schilberg calls a disappearing art. While venture capitalists may pump $20 million to $30 million into a new company, BioAdvance has a more focused, disciplined strategy, which includes thoroughly researching a company's potential and investing much smaller initial sums of $250,000 to $1 million, after which it works closely with companies to help them reach their goals.
We are interested in companies capable of making "multiple shots on goal," Schilberg says. "It's not a single product; it's not a single technology that if you fail you'll have nothing left in the company. You must assume failure and plan for success. "The help BioAdvance offers its portfolio companies goes far beyond cash, she adds. For example, it provides assistance with lining up office and lab space or meeting venture capitalists. "Part of our job is just to make connections."
Schilberg was born in Ohio, raised in Pittsburgh, Pa., and has lived in Pennsylvania ever since, aside from law school at the University of Virginia and seven years in Washington, DC. After clerking with the Honorable Edward R. Becker (currently senior judge with the US Court of Appeals, Third Circuit), she joined the Philadelphia office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, where she specialized in working with biopharmaceutical companies and research institutions to commercialize their technology. She went on to work in senior management at Cephalon, Incara Pharmaceuticals (continuing there after the company's acquisition by Advanced Medicine, now Theravance), and Locus Discovery.
Much of the attraction of her work at BioAdvance is the opportunity to work with entrepreneurs, says Schilberg. "They are passionate and they make personal sacrifices. I have tremendous respect for them. When it works it's just an incredibly satisfying experience," she explains. The work itself is "intellectually interesting," she adds. "To try and navigate a very complicated industry where there are a lot of things outside your control, including science, it's hard and it's challenging but because of that, it's particularly satisfying when things work."
Schilberg has also been a leader in thinking about the life sciences industry as an "ecosystem," rather than breaking it into bits and pieces - for example, separating biotech from Big Pharma. "Because biotech and pharma are becoming so interrelated, I think to just look at biotech alone is not the right perspective," she explains.
BioAdvance co-commissioned a study by the Milken Institute in 2003 to investigate Greater Philadelphia's potential from this perspective, as a life sciences hub. The report, released at the 2005 BIO meeting, ranked the region in the top three bioclusters, along with Boston and Greater San Francisco.
Part of realizing this potential is to make sure the region's life sciences industry really is a complete ecosystem, and that growing companies won't have to move somewhere else to get the resources they need, says Schilberg. With this in mind, BioAdvance created the concept for the Greater Philadelphia Life Sciences directory to help identify any gaps. "We're in pretty good shape; from that standpoint we're remarkably rich," says Schilberg. "You do still see people going to Boston and Greater San Francisco for biotech production. I think that will change because we're in it for the long haul," she says. "People really see the momentum building."