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New Cambridge venture firm, Access BridgeGap, has $75 million for promising life sciences start-ups

Posted by Scott Kirsner  December 19, 2011 08:35 AM

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Update: As of December 2012, the firm has ceased operations in Cambridge. Former SVP Daniel Behr explains that it "had a terrific 18-month run during which we made three biotech investments in a market hungry for early-stage investors. However, the group was dismantled in December because Access Industries (our funder) decided to fold BridgeGap’s portfolio into an Israeli biotech venture firm in which it acquired a controlling interest last June."

Investors may be growing wary of the life sciences business, where companies cultivating new drugs and medical treatments can require hundreds of millions of dollars and a decade or more to get a new product across the finish line. But not Len Blavatnik, a Moscow-born industrialist who ranks at #32 on the Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans. He expects to deploy $75 million through a new Cambridge-based investment group that will scour academic labs for breakthrough research that could serve as the kernel of new companies.

The new firm, Access BridgeGap Ventures, will be headed by Daniel Behr, who previously worked at the Harvard University Office of Technology Development, which helps the university spin out companies and license its research. Behr had also recently worked at Allied Minds, a Boston investment firm that hunts for promising technologies at universities and government labs. Working alongside Behr is Ben Bronstein, a long-time executive in the medical device and biotech industries. Jess Barnes will be responsible for due diligence at the new firm.

Access BridgeGap is described as the "entrepreneur-run life sciences investment arm" of Blavatnik's New York-based conglomerate, which owns chemical companies, real estate, and the Warner Music Group. Behr says it will fund three to five companies per year.

Behr says he started thinking about a firm that could help shepherd promising research from academic labs into the commercial sphere in 2005, "but I couldn't raise the money for it then." Through Behr's Harvard connections, he got introduced to Blavatnik, the sole investor in Access BridgeGap. Behr says Blavatnik has committed to investing $75 million over the fund's first few years, but could add more. (Blavatnik earned his MBA at Harvard Business School, and in 2009 donated $10 million to the university.)

"Our focus is on early-stage therapeutics — treating or preventing disease — not devices or diagnostics or imaging," Behr says. The firm will consider new drugs developed in academic labs and at early-stage start-ups, as well as those developed at bigger biopharma companies that may not regard a particular disease area or approach as core to their strategy any more. Access BridgeGap may also invest in more mature companies where the early investors are tapped out, and there's an opportunity to put money in at an appealing valuation.

"We're being a little contrarian by investing in early-stage therapeutics," Behr says, "but we think the likelihood of having an early exit is higher there.

Behr says the firm is on the verge of making its first investment — it'll be a Boston-area start-up — but he wasn't ready to share details.

Advisors to the firm include Isaac Kohlberg, the top licensing officer at Harvard's Office of Technology Development; Manuel Navia, a one-time senior executive at Vertex and Merck; and William Koster, a former head of drug discovery research at Bristol-Myers Squibb.

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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