Interview with Johannes Fruehauf, M.D., Ph.D.
Co-Founder & President, LabCentral
CEO, Biolabs, General Partner, BioInnovation Capital
Fostering Biotechnology Innovation & Growth
In this exclusive Slone Partners interview, Dr. Johannes Fruehauf shares the great success story behind LabCentral and its upcoming plan for expansion.
He also discusses the wealth of life science talent in the Boston area and provides valuable insights on what he has learned as a biotech leader and entrepreneur.
Slone Partners: What is the story behind LabCentral’s founding?
Dr. Johannes Fruehauf: After we sold Cequent Pharmaceuticals in 2010, I was working on a new startup in the synthetic biology space. We were trying to engineer probiotics to gain additional functions. In order to pay for the small number of employees and space we had, we launched a service business on the side which offered wet-lab due diligence services to investors and innovators who needed lab services. It helped that we were located in Kendall Square.
Very soon this service business became more successful than our startup idea (I believe we were a bit too early with this, but some people are picking up similar technologies now) and we were helping dozens of startups launch with many of the top-name venture funds in the area. As they launched, many of these nascent companies needed small increments of laboratory space and we allowed them to rent space in our lab. From that we developed a new co-working model for biotechnology and refined it to distill the minimum viable unit that we now offer at Biolabs Cambridge, LabCentral, LifeLab and our other Biolabs locations.
My co-founders Peter Parker, Tim Rowe and I took this model to the state of Massachusetts and proposed building an even larger embodiment of this idea. The Mass Life Sciences Center was open minded and helped us with a $5M grant that allowed us to build LabCentral. The companies created at LabCentral and Biolabs have now raised over $1B to-date (2016), and created well over 500 new jobs, so we like to believe it was a smart investment by the state.
Slone Partners: How do you see LabCentral evolving over the next five years?
Dr. Johannes Fruehauf: LabCentral is filling an important function in the marketplace of the innovation economy in that it increases by a factor of 10-20 the capital efficiency for early stage companies. This allows us to grow our footprint significantly. LabCentral is currently growing to reach 120,000 square feet, over four times our current size, within the next 9-12 months. In addition to that, we have just added the LifeLab, a purpose-built facility we designed, and now manage, for Harvard Business School.
LabCentral is currently home to 30 startup companies and within a year will have capacity for nearly 100 startup companies. We are also building additional programming and broadening our mission. For example, we have an ambitious plan to offer science education to middle and high school kids, as well as to their science teachers, for that we partner with BioBuilder, a non-profit out of MIT. We are currently fundraising with them to help us build and run a STEM lab within LabCentral that would enable hundreds of kids each year to get exposed to hands-on-science experiences and learning.
Slone Partners: What does your typical day at LabCentral look like relative to your relationship with resident and alumni companies?
Dr. Johannes Fruehauf: LabCentral is currently undergoing a rapid phase of growth, so a good amount of time is devoted to reviewing architectural plans and legal agreements. Apart from that I spend a lot of time chatting with entrepreneurs, founders, and scientists to discuss their plans. We discuss their progress and I give advice and guidance for their ventures, often making connections with our pharma partners or investors. Through all of this, it is incredible to see the density of knowledge, and innovative energy that is located in Boston’s academic and biotechnology world. I feel very privileged to be in this position.
Slone Partners: What is LabCentral’s greatest success story to this day?
Dr. Johannes Fruehauf: The greatest success, and the thing that makes me most proud, are not the incredible financial successes we have with our startup companies (and they are stunning – I invite you to look them up). It is the strong community that we have been able to establish within LabCentral; a diverse set of innovators and entrepreneurs who are all pursuing their own dreams and ambitions, but who are also helping each other to improve, streamline their work, and open their personal networks to their peers. This is amazing and really powerful to see. It was something we had hoped for, but were not quite sure of its success. If you ask any graduate of LabCentral today, they will probably say that the instruments and equipment we have here were important to them but that the community and connections with peers they were able to build here were an even more powerful part of their success.
Slone Partners: You have been leading LabCentral for three years now. What is your biggest leadership takeaway so far?
Dr. Johannes Fruehauf: For me, our success at LabCentral is clearly based on our ability to build a capable and dedicated team. Yes, we had the vision and the idea, but without a hardworking team we could not have built it. This is an important lesson. If you ever want to scale your business, you must find good people to work with, get them to buy into your vision and ideas and then empower them to grow it.
Slone Partners: If you had to give one piece of advice to individuals looking to launch a biotech startup, what would it be?
Dr. Johannes Fruehauf: Know your science inside-out. Hire good people. Buckle up and be ready for a hell of a ride.
Slone Partners: Once a company is in residence, are there any core principles you think they should focus on to be successful?
Dr. Johannes Fruehauf: We emphasize to all of our founders how important it is to stay focused. LabCentral’s mission is not to be a cushy place where you have good snacks and cool people to hang out with; it’s a place where we provide you with maximum functionality and an incredible network of people to empower you to launch your startup in record time and achieve those next milestones as soon as possible. If at any day you are not feeling the urgency, something is wrong.
Slone Partners: You mentioned on LabCentral’s website that your favorite school science project was “Anything that would explode!” If you had to pick your favorite project today what would it be and why?
Dr. Johannes Fruehauf: I am in awe of the tools of genetic cloning and the power of biotechnology. I believe that we are only at the beginning of a period where we will see a very broad application of biology and biological engineering to build things; not just drugs, but fabrics, food, building materials, computers, and more.
About Johannes Fruehauf, M.D., Ph.D.
Johannes Fruehauf is the Founder, President and Executive Director of LabCentral. He is responsible for all aspects of LabCentral’s operations. He is a General Partner and Co-Founder at BioInnovation Capital, a seed and early stage venture capital fund that makes investments in life science companies. Johannes is the President and CEO of the Biolabs network, a network of contract research facilities and shared laboratories serving startup and virtual companies at Kendall Square in Cambridge, San Diego, North Carolina, and other locations. He is a physician and successful biotech entrepreneur. Prior to LabCentral, Johannes founded or co-founded Cambridge Biolabs, ViThera Pharmaceuticals, Deltix, and Cequent Pharmaceuticals, and he is an advisor or board member to numerous life sciences companies and non-profits. Johannes earned his medical degree at the University of Frankfurt and his Ph.D. at the University of Heidelberg (Germany).
Read our exclusive interview with Joydeep Goswami, PhD, President, Clinical NGS and Oncology at Thermo Fisher