David Schaffer, Director,

QB3-Berkeley

"Whether it’s therapeutics, food technologies, or solutions to environmental challenges, we believe that academic insights should not remain in an ivory tower."

Can you introduce QB3 to our readers?

QB3 began over 20 years ago as a state funded, multicampus entity to promote innovation and entrepreneurship in the biosciences, specifically biotech. The entity has four main components. The first three are the research branches at UC San Francisco, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Cruz that create scientific knowledge, innovations, and networks. The fourth branch is the umbrella organization, known as QB3 Central, which takes basic discoveries from the campuses and fosters the translation of these technologies into companies that create products to benefit society as well as stimulate the state economy. The help QB3 provides includes access to incubator facilities, acceleration programs, funding, and networking with leaders in industry, venture capital, corporate law, and intellectual property law.

How would you assess the current interplay between academia and industry?

Historically, there has been a barrier in translating the incredible work done in academia into the private sector, which technologies need to reach to have a broad societal benefit. QB3 helps bridge this gap. For example, a collaboration between QB3, UC Berkeley, and the Bakar Bioenginuity Hub recently completed a new state-of-the-art biotech incubator called Bakar Labs with 40,000 square feet of lab space at the edge of the campus. Whether it’s therapeutics, food technologies, or solutions to environmental challenges, we believe that academic insights should not remain in an ivory tower.

When I first started in academia, people who patented their discoveries were sometimes perceived as corporate sell-outs. I came to realize, however, that I could do laboratory research for the rest of my career in a way that would never make it to a patient. So I became involved in spinning out companies from our work, eight so far, and technologies created by students and post-docs in our lab are currently being used in eight human clinical trials. In general, academic sentiment has progressed in many ways to recognize the importance and mutual benefits of collaborating with industry.

What types of companies enter Bakar Labs?

There is a broad variety in the companies in our incubator. Pre-Covid, a large pharma company decided to terminate its antiviral program given the perceived weak market for antivirals. A member of the program licensed the technology from the company and set up operations in our incubator. In a different therapeutic area, a CRISPR-based company spun out of the Berkeley campus to develop treatments for human genetic diseases will soon be joining us. Additionally, one of my companies is currently in Bakar Labs developing advanced stem cell therapies. In particular, we have developed a scalable 3D system to mass produce stem cells and their differentiated progeny to serve as cell replacement therapies for a range of human degenerative diseases. Within the incubator, there is even a company focused on developing synthetic meats, which will improve the environmental effects of the food industry. This is just a small taste of the broad variety of companies that will be entering Bakar Labs.

What is your opinion on San Francisco’s emergence as a top hub for biotech innovation?

To be a successful hub for bio innovation, a region must have strong biological and physical sciences, engineering, medical schools and academic hospitals, and biotech and pharma companies. There are two epicenters with that kind of confluence, Boston and San Francisco, and these regions lead the biotech industry on a national and perhaps global level. San Francisco was the birthplace of the biotech industry, and there continues to be explosive innovation here. There has been a significant growth in startup activity in the Bay Area, particularly over the past five years, and this activity makes the region an exciting place to work.

How will QB3 shape its main initiatives moving forward?

There are certain areas where the free market stimulates innovation in the private sector, such as human health and digital technologies. However, there are also areas where the alignment between major societal need and free market incentives is not as close. Before Covid-19, vaccines were a great example of a relatively small margin, risky field, and it took a pandemic to change this outlook. Today, the free market does not incentivize innovation in several areas where this is great societal need. For example, antibiotic resistance is a challenge. Another example is biofuels – every time the price per barrel of oil shoots up, biofuels start looking competitive. When the price goes back down, however, interest is lost. QB3 greatly looks forward to continuing to support innovation in such societally important areas.