Building a Biotech Hub
|Craig Crews at his Yale lab, where his research team investigates how biological cells react to chemical compounds that could hold the key to a new class of cancer-fighting drug
Discoveries made in Yale bioscience labs hold the potential keys to fighting cancer and other diseases. Craig Crews is on a mission to build a pathway for the most promising ideas to reach the marketplace in the form of potentially lifesaving drugs and therapies. And when they do, Crews wants to make sure the companies that make these drugs come to New Haven and stay here.
Crews, the Lewis B. Cullman Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at Yale, runs a lab that investigates the intersection of biology and chemistry. Thirteen years ago, his experiments produced discoveries that he used for the creation of his first company, Proteolix. The start-up was highly successful, attracting venture capital and launching a drug technology that is now being used to fight types of blood cancers. The investors, however, were based in California, and they moved Proteolix out west. So when Crews had his next idea for a company he wanted to make sure that his hometown and state didn’t again miss out on the jobs, tax revenue and growth.
“If people like me don’t step up and do this, who will? I knew that New Haven had what we needed to do it. I drew a line in
the sand. It had to be here.”
After fending off offers from Boston-based venture capital firms, Crews was able to see his vision for a New Haven-based biotech company realized thanks to investments from Connecticut-based Canaan Partners, the state Department of Economic and Community Development, Connecticut Innovations (the state’s quasi-public technology funder) and other investors. The result was Arvinas, a revolutionary approach to treating cancers. Five-and-a-half years later, Arvinas made a successful public stock offering in the fall of 2018 and employs more than 100 people at Science Park in the Newhallville neighborhood of New Haven.
Arvinas executives ring the opening bell at the company’s public offering.
The line in the sand for Crews comes from a strong appreciation for New Haven, both as a place to live and for what it can offer the biotech industry.
“I like the community here,” he says. “We have a vibrant, diverse and dynamic city. It is walkable and small enough to be manageable. And we have an abundance of talent.”
Crews is also involved with promoting that talent and connecting the ideas generated in Yale labs with potential venture capital funding to launch other local companies. He founded a biotech accelerator called the Program in Innovative Therapeutics for Connecticut’s Health, or PITCH, which works with promising scientist entrepreneurs at Yale and the University of Connecticut.
With PITCH, Crews is trying to fill a void that has opened in recent decades as the pharmaceutical industry has evolved. The trend in Big Pharma is to buy up smaller companies with already developed drugs rather than spend on developing drugs internally, which used to be done with closer ties to academic research. The era of consolidation has left university scientists with fewer places to bring their ideas for real world applications. PITCH offers to bridge this gap by shaping academic projects into potential businesses that can attract investment capital. To date, 23 projects have been funded.
“I want to use whatever success I’ve enjoyed to help figure out how we can create opportunities for others in the city. This can’t just be one person, one company,” says Crews. “It has to be a collaboration.”
Crews plans to establish a donor advised fund at The Community Foundation to carry out his charitable giving.