Too hot for comfort?

While working on the predecessor to Drug Discovery News, I had the pleasure of writing

Randall C Willis
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While working on the predecessor to Drug Discovery News, I had the pleasure of writing several versions of the canonical biotechnology hotspot travelogues that litter the editorial landscape. It was an interesting process and afforded me the opportunity to speak with a lot of people whom I might otherwise have overlooked.
By the same token, it also opened my in-box to an array of towns and regions that all saw themselves as the latest, greatest, or baddest hotspot on the landscape. After receiving myriad emails in this vein, I was forced to ask a pivotal question: If everyone is hot, is anyone?
There is no doubt that several locations both within the United States and around the world have made incredible investments in their biotech infrastructures, hooking up academic centers of excellence with industrial giants and start-ups in an environment of financial and regulatory bliss. (Interestingly, it seems that the faster government gets its fingers out of the pie, the better a hotspot does.)
The poster children of this process are places like Boston, San Francisco, Cambridge (UK) and Montreal. But this level of hotspot is practically at the supernova stage, so we almost can't include them in discussions about hotspots, with all due respect. To draw a parallel, while looking for planets around distant stars, astronomers first have to block out the luminal intensity of the star. It is the only way you're going to see the milder glow of the planets.
The real consideration of a hotspot, I believe, comes when looking at the lesser lights in the biotech sky. And by "lesser", I mean only in the sense of not being as glaring. Places like Madison (Wisc.), Indianapolis, Kalamazoo (Mich.) and Lehigh Valley (Penn.) offer a level of collegial intimacy that I suspect is missing from the major centers. Similarly, I believe that London (Ont.) and Saskatoon (Sask.) in Canada offer cross-functional and partnering opportunities for which places like Toronto and Vancouver were once known.
I don't want this to sound like an indictment of the larger centers, but rather an acknowledgement that the bar is a little higher in these centers. A start-up or small-cap company might find it difficult to thrive in such an environment, competing for resources against larger, more mature companies and universities. Smaller or less densely populated regions, by their very nature, offer familial settings where groups work together toward a common good. To really push the urban-rural metaphor, I just don't see a lot of people getting involved in biotech barn-raisings in Boston.
So does that mean that everyone should move their start-ups or academic projects to Kansas City or Prague? No, not necessarily. But in deciding where to set up shop, you really have to look at both the tangible and intangible factors that will influence the success of your company. Will you need or want a lot of input—financial, scientific or emotional—from the local community, or are you ready to compete with and take advantage of the economies-of-scale?
If you can't stand the heat, find a smaller hotspot.

Randall C Willis

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