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2022-10-18| InterviewsSpecial

Transforming Southern California Biotech Landscape: An Interview With SoCalBio CEO Ahmed Enany

by Max Heirich
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Southern California Biomedical Council’s (SoCalBio) is one of the oldest biotech associations in serving the biotech, med tech, IVD and digital health communities. The organization supports local firms in accessing capital, potential partners, as well as various business services. In addition, SoCalBio promotes the transfer of technology and workforce training. The non-profit takes care to inform both policymakers as well as the public region’s bioscience industry benefit. 

Each year it hosts its annual conference in Long beach California, during this year’s event, GeneOnline had the exclusive opportunity to sit down with the nonprofit’s President and Chief Executive Officer, Ahmed Enany. Enany elaborated on the purpose of the conference and its evolution, the distribution of healthcare, the funding available to start ups and how these fledgling organizations might acquire them. Sporting a robust background in the industry, many consider Ahmed Enany as the face of the biotech industry in Los Angeles. Having founded SoCalBio over two decades ago, Enany has tirelessly worked to build Los Angeles into an emerging hub of the biotech sphere. 

Related Article: Will Biden’s Biomanufacturing Initiative Kill Korean Partnership?

From Integrative Biology, Bioconvergence to Breakout Sessions

Taking place over October 6th and 7th, the 24th Annual SoCalBio Conference was a crossroads of major players in biotech as well as numerous startups. With a theme of integrative biology, the conference sought the empowerment of networking between companies as well as the promotion of integrative biology technology and entrepreneurship. 

The first day saw opening talks from figures like Canadian Consul General Zaib Shaikh on creating collaborations between biotech companies in Southern California and Canada. Day two went far more in depth with early morning keynotes presentations detailing the rise of integrative biotechnology. The highlight of the day was documentarian Joe Gantz who previewed a portion of his film “Ending Disease,” a documentary centered on the journey of patients treated by the first generation of stem cell, CAR-T cell, and antibody therapies.

One of the highlights for the event was the breakout sessions which covered technological frontiers upon the horizon or discussions on business trends in the industry. For the latter, panelists discussed which companies succeed most in securing funding and methods in which startups can develop talent to reach and push beyond their goals.

The Evolved Purpose of the Conference

“Our objective when we got founded over two decades ago, is to work with local entrepreneurs about a collective action agenda to solve problems that they may be facing here.” One of the top issues Enany noted was financials. Enany said it’s an uphill challenge as it is not as strong as the Bay Area, noting that “venture capitals like to have firms in their backyard.”

Though SoCalBio’s president lamented the loss of biotech companies to out of town funding, he believes things are getting better as more financial resources become available. Enany stated, “That’s why we do this conference. We started doing this in 1998, and the objective at the time was to create a forum where we can bring in investors, CEOs, and companies looking for money or partnerships and then have a dialogue… And then hopefully, as people network, they can continue the discussion and do deals.”

Enany then elaborated the conference’s expansion since, tackling the issues beyond the scope of financial matters such as talent development, establishing partnerships, and international work. SoCalBio’s president elaborated on how his organization assists companies make partnerships internationally. As an example, Enany talked about how SoCalBio helps companies with preclinical trials with harnessing the markets in Asia, particularly that of China. 

Enany moved on, touching on the theme of this year’s conference: integrative biology, the convergence between biology, engineering, and computer sciences. “Many people have been talking about that conversion for years,” Enany said, “But now, we had significant advances made in research and science that would make this a viable pathway to create better drugs and better devices.” The conference is about exploring the emerging commercial prospects and opportunities for this. He then stated that Los Angeles is one of the few places in the world where integrative biology integration is taking place in a serious way.

The Effectiveness of Telemedicine Will Require Effective Devices

Across all the various subjects presented at the conference, Enany seemed most enthused about the emerging distribution of the healthcare market. “As we are changing the healthcare system in the United States, we’re moving in the direction of what is called ‘Distributed Healthcare.’” 

This shift of treatment allows for the treatment of chronic diseases like cancer or diabetes out of the hospital and into other more efficient modalities that cost far less than a hospital stay. As an example, Enany said, “I am happier at home being taken care of than in a hospital bed, psychologically and also physically. So, why not take advantage of that?”

Though Enany touched on the emergence and effectiveness of telemedicine as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, he asserted the need for effective devices for effective telemedicine. Without such technology, doctors cannot fully examine or diagnose their patients at home, limiting the both parties to only discuss issues. 

Enany also discussed how the distribution of healthcare can affect patients who require frequent visits such as those needing hemodialysis. “Instead of going [to the hospital] and sitting there for five hours hooked up to a machine, waiting for your blood to be cleared, you can do it at home. You’re comfortable, you’re watching TV, you have the cat sitting next to you- it is more psychologically tolerable.”

Examples provided in the interview of advancements already made in the field of home healthcare included heart rate, glucose, and blood oxidation monitoring as well as diagnostic testing. Acknowledging that the COVID-19 pandemic made the latter commonplace, Enany stated that at home testing for infectious diseases was “unthinkable” before the pandemic. 

However, Enany quickly tempered his excitement, stating that, though such technology is in development, we’re still in the early stages of delivering medical grade home devices to patients. 

How Startups Can Access Billions in Funding

“The challenges for biotech are 2 things, money and taking the idea through the clinical phase, Money is always a subject matter of interest to everybody,” Enany began before further elaborating on financials specifically. According to Enany, there is a dip in the amount of money invested in 2022. However, at the same time, venture fund firms raised around $60 billion in the last three years by SoCalBio’s estimation. “Where is that money going to go?” Enany’s rhetorical question preceded his main point. “How does that money affect startups?”

Enany claimed that there are only a few late-stage opportunities, resulting in a lot of funding available for early-stage operations. The president of SoCalBio mentioned that another goal of the event was the exploration of the use of this funding via breakout panels. 

Enany stated that corporate venture funding from large or even “not so large” corporations likely outweighs the funding raised by venture capitalist firms. A benefit for this kind of funding is that corporations will shovel more money towards startups that are in line with what they themselves are doing. As an example, he mentioned companies like Amgen will invest hundreds of millions into a project they like rather than amounts of tens of millions commonly seen in venture capitalists. “People have to learn how to access this kind of funding,” Enany said, “And that’s the second session today… one interesting aspect of it is the ability to tap what is called ‘sovereign funds.’”

SoCalBio’s president explained that these state-owned investment funds enable growth opportunities as well as assist in the development of technology in the industry. Enany listed out the various countries which have these funds such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, and the fact that they are “always looking for new opportunities.”

However, he also listed out the various hoops companies seeking this sort of investment need to jump through should they want that sort of funding. These hoops include terms of the investment, the funding’s timetable, whether or not international funding is a good fit for startups, and various other factors or tasks companies have to consider before seeking out sovereign funds. “Companies need to learn how to do that,” Enany asserted in support of the convention’s purpose. 

And companies have seen success learning just that. Acelyrin, a Los Angeles firm focused on immunology via fusion protein, snapped up the largest fundraising total in August of this year, totaling $300 million. Another success story mentioned by Enany is Impact Biomedicines. In 2017, the SoCal based pharmaceutical company raised $112 million between two funding rounds before its $1.1 billion acquisition by Celgene. Enany also mentioned that previously there were no large biotech venture capitals in the LA area. Now there are funds like Westlake village biopartners, or Section 32 which we didn’t have before. He also sees smaller funds that are willing to invest in healthcare today. 

“Everybody was lamenting the absence of smart money,” Enany stated a little while, and though he admitted that the lack was still a problem, the CEO of SoCalBio asserted “the problem was less than before.” Enany then listed out various big funders capable of multi million dollar investments. The firms Enany mentioned by name included Westlake Village BioPartners, Vine Ventures, and Section 32. “We didn’t have these before,” Enany concluded, “We see more smaller funds willing to invest in healthcare, more than what we saw ten or fifteen years ago.”

In summation, the interview with the president of SoCalBio provided a fresh, in depth perspective on the event. Though Enany’s excitement could be felt throughout every panel and breakout room, it was palpable in the interview. His discussion with GeneOnline further accentuated an already embolden point that biotech companies, specifically start ups, require venues in which they can plant the seeds that will become their network and learn how to navigate the complexities of the industry. 

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