The life science industry in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has historically cycled through peaks and troughs as the fortunes of Big Pharma wax and wane. It has been shaped, largely, by external forces.
That need not be the case, according to Militia Hill Ventures, a women-led venture firm that wants to actively empower the local life science community. In a phone interview, founders Jane Holmes Hollingsworth and Joan Lau discussed their mission to create a self-sustaining entrepreneurial ecosystem in Philadelphia.
“We were worried, Joan and I, that if we didn’t actively build more that we might start to lose our edge,” Hollingsworth said of their Philadelphia base.
While it’s not Boston, San Francisco, or San Diego, there is a lot to work with in the region. A study released in January 2017, tallied 1,200 life science enterprises in the wider Philadelphia region, with some 48,900 people directly employed by the industry. Many more reside in the local academic institutions, which are world-renowned in the life sciences.
The talent is there, yet Hollingsworth and Lau felt other parts of the ecosystem were missing. Philadelphia doesn’t have the same access to capital and an established culture of entrepreneurship, as seen in other life science hubs.
“One of the examples we looked at was Boston, which has done a phenomenally good job,” Hollingsworth noted. “And one of the reasons they have done that in [the life sciences] is because they have been very active about it, not just letting it happen organically.”
Since 2013, the two female entrepreneurs have been working to establish that mindset in Philadelphia through their omnipotent venture firm, which functions as an investor, adviser, mediator, landlord, and more.
Part of the plan was to build a space that could physically bring the community together. The founders settled on a 20,000 square foot facility in the University City area that could incubate Militia Hill’s young companies. Called the MHV Innovation Hub, it also features a collaborative workspace.
Hollingsworth and Lau chose the location purposefully.
“It connects the industry side with the university side,” Hollingsworth said. “So we have a lot of events here designed specifically to bring the life science community together.”
When it comes to filling the facility with high potential startups, the founders draw on their combined decades of industry success, notes a third female partner, Katie McGinty, who joined the firm in April.
“What I see in Jane and Joan is excellence in identifying the most promising science to meet market need and literally standing companies up to bring that science forward,” McGinty explained via phone. “What Jane and Joan are not is just financial engineering. This is really about a keen instinct for science that is needed in the marketplace, hands-on, building companies to bring that science to maturity and commercialization.”
It’s not a passive approach, waiting to see what companies might walk in the door, McGinty noted. The team often reaches deep into the academic system to partner directly with scientists that can solve a particular market need.
Others in the community agree. Christopher Laing, vice president of science and technology and the University City Science Center, has worked with Militia Hill as part of a translational program within his academic center.
“Militia Hill Ventures’ model shows exactly what can be achieved with the right combination of high-quality science and exceptional industry and commercial experience,” Laing noted via email. “With very little capital they have managed to move a number of projects significantly along the development path. As they ramp up their investment capabilities, we’re expecting to see some very significant achievements come out of what is already shaping up to be an exciting portfolio.”
Militia Hill now has three startups on the books; Talee Bio, Immunome, and Tcera.
“We know what’s there because we’ve built those relationships,” said cofounder Joan Lau. “We know what science we’re looking for because we know what’s hot and where the newest developments are.”
Hollingsworth previously founded two biopharma companies; Auxilium Pharmaceuticalsand NuPathe. Both were acquired several years ago. NuPathe was scooped up by Teva Pharmaceuticals for $114 million; Auxilium was sold to Endo Pharmaceuticals in NuPathe was scooped up by Teva Pharmaceuticals for $114 million; Auxilium was sold to Endo Pharmaceuticals in a deal valued at $2.6 billion.
Lau moved from a management role in Merck, to become president and CEO of Locus Pharmaceuticals, a computational chemistry discovery company. She later joined and led Azelon Pharmaceuticals, which worked on treatments for osteoporosis.
More recently, they have been joined by Venture Partner Shawn Bridy and McGinty, who started out majoring in chemistry before switching to law. She went on to become the first woman to chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality during President Bill Clinton’s administration and was most recently the Democratic nominee for United States Senate in Pennsylvania.