There should have been no doubt where Nithin Tumma’s talents would take him.
Winner of a prestigious science award for his high school research on cancer, the Harvard University sophomore seems destined for a promising career in life sciences. But then he and two friends experienced the thrill of developing a mobile app that recommends products and services and quickly launching it at Apple’s App Store.
Now Tumma is thinking about a future in consumer technology.
“Speed is one of the appeals of the tech start-up space over life science,” said Tumma, whose app makes suggestions based on how users and their friends answer simple questions. “I love doing research, but it’s a very slow and arduous process.”
The promise of a fast return — made possible by low-cost, accessible software and the pervasiveness of mobile devices — has lured many bright young minds such as Tumma to the tech world, where products seem to go to market practically overnight. It also has produced a kind of envy among life scientists, who labor through years of costly research and testing to solve the world’s greatest health problems.
The contrast “hits us in the face every day,” said Michael Schrader, whose firm Vaxess Technologies, faces at least four more years of work perfecting a vaccine preservation system — and who works across the room from Tumma’s team at the Harvard innovation lab.
Johannes Fruehauf remembers the frustration of starting a life sciences company in Kendall Square in 2006, a first year spent mostly finding lab space, buying equipment, and obtaining permits. He would look with a twinge of jealousy at the tech start-ups crowded in the neighboring Cambridge Innovation Center, many of which seemed to launch and hit milestones in no time at all.
‘We have a totally new model that gets these companies much closer to where tech companies already are.’
“They just buy some cloud space, rent a table at the CIC, buy a laptop, and they get started,” Fruehauf said. “They can have a real company, a real product, sales, turnaround, growth — all of that with very little capital investment, and in a very short time.”
Life sciences companies face a bevy of hurdles that tech start-ups don’t: lengthy clinical trials, strict regulations against shortcuts, expensive labs to conduct research, and long-term funding needs.
Now Fruehauf and others in the local science community are trying to create some of the same work conditions that make it so easy for tech start-ups to get up and running quickly.
After selling their company, Fruehauf and cofounder Peter Parker set out to open a first-of-its-kind co-working space for life sciences companies in Cambridge that provides low-cost lab space and other conveniences to help entrepreneurs advance their research much faster. The $12 million facility, called LabCentral, opens next month.
Fittingly, one of the founding members is Tim Rowe, head of the Cambridge Innovation Center, and its board of directors includes John Harthorne, chief executive of the MassChallenge start-up accelerator program in Boston.
“We have a totally new model that gets these companies much closer to where tech companies already are,” said Fruehauf, who serves as LabCentral’s executive director.
Meanwhile a prominent local venture capital firm, Third Rock Ventures, is pioneering a new investment strategy that offers uncommonly generous funding to life sciences start-ups, liberating their entrepreneurs from the pressure of constantly having to raise money.
Believing that preoccupation with money slows innovation, Third Rock gives its companies big cushions, teaming up with other funders to provide $25 million to $45 million at a time, in an industry where $5 million to $10 million is more typical but often lasts less than a year.
“You really cause this dynamic where you’re telling the leader of the business to go tin-cupping back to venture as your full-time job, instead of just building a great company,” said Third Rock partner Kevin Starr.
The strategy appears to be working. Local Third Rock-backed companies are going public at an earlier age than other life sciences ventures in Massachusetts have, meaning the science behind their businesses appears promising enough after only a few years to convince investors to bet on their success.
Still, Starr cautioned that patience remains an essential trait for the industry’s entrepreneurs.
“Sure, we would all love science to happen faster, purely to get it out to patients,” he said. “But it’s a little bit of a delayed gratification. If you’re in our business, you have to be accepting of that or you’re going to get very frustrated.”
Meanwhile, LabCentral received strong financial commitments, with a $5 million grant from the quasipublic Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and $7 million in private sponsorships from Johnson & Johnson and the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, among others.
Rent for start-ups will be about $50,000 per person — a relative bargain for access to millions of dollars in equipment they otherwise would have to buy.
One of the first companies to sign on as a tenant at LabCentral is Vaxess, whose principals are developing a new technique to preserve vaccines without refrigeration, enabling delivery to remote parts of the world. The science behind the vaccine system has been in development for more than a decade, and Vaxess expects another four to six years before the product is ready. The company also raised $3.75 million in May
It might take Vaxess more time, and its money might not last as long, without a ready-made, affordable workspace like LabCentral.
“We looked at moving into our own independent space, and while that’s attractive for other reasons, one major downside is you’re responsible for all kinds of stuff that has nothing to do with advancing the product,” said Patrick Ho, another Vaxess cofounder.
Meanwhile, Tumma and partners James Ruben and Neel Patel say a table at the Harvard innovation lab and the roughly $20,000 in seed money they’ve scraped up are plenty to sustain them for now. Their plan is to turn a free app that people use to find new products and activities into a marketing tool that online retailers can deploy on their websites, for a fee.
Tumma, who is studying math and computer science, figures he will be ready for a new challenge in a few years, tops, at which point life sciences just might win him back.
“Right now I’m leaning toward the [tech] route that I’m on because I like the ability to quickly change what I’m doing,” Tumma said. “But I’m definitely open to reconsidering in, like, two or three years.”