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UB lecture zeroes in on a capital idea Region gets advice on finding money to build on science, talent

Launching a successful life sciences company requires three ingredients: science, talent and capital.

Western New York is bursting with the first, should have no problem recruiting more of the second, but is sorely lacking in the third, according to Kevin Centofanti, a principal at the merchant banking firm Brooks, Houghton & Co. in New York City.

In a lecture Thursday in the University at Buffalo's Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, the UB graduate outlined some of the steps the region would have to take to secure that precious capital.

"In the first part of 2009, [Western New York] has had $5 million of venture capital come in," he said. "That's very paltry. It's a terrible number."

Still, he said, that's one reason investment companies like his are looking at the area as an "underbanked, underinvested" region that can be tapped for potential returns.

The state's commitment to making Buffalo Niagara a science hub, along with groundbreaking research under way here also make it attractive. Now all we have to do, he said, is find a way to get our most promising ideas before the right kinds of investors. Those proposals also should be in at least the second phase of development or entrepreneurs can risk hearing, "Nice idea, but come back when you grow up," he said.

That sentiment underscores the predicament many local start-ups face -- the scarcity of seed money to get viable ideas off the ground. As a remedy, Centofanti suggested Western New Yorkers widen their net to Toronto, Boston and New York City when looking for investors.

Centofanti highlighted a system that has succeeded elsewhere, involving groups of investors who band together to vet several needy entrepreneurs each month, selecting the most auspicious ones for 10-minute, in-person presentations. The best of those return for lengthier talks.

Investors such as Brooks, Houghton & Co. use the same funneling process on a wider scale, examining more than 400 companies per year to find 10 in which it might invest.

That system of linking entrepreneurs with investors already is operating here, though the money comes from a shallower pool, said Jack McGowan, director of the Western New York Venture Association.

"The capacity is limited, but the forum is here," he said.

The Life Sciences Commercialization Lecture Series, now in its third year, aims to help start-ups in the life sciences obtain the capital needed to take their research from the lab to the marketplace or to its next stage of growth.

Marnie Lavigne, director of business development at the Center of Excellence, described the expertise that Centofanti has shared with his home region as invaluable and noted that connections with people like him are essential.

"Kevin is an important tie for us. Our expatriates are a real key to making things happen in the region," she said.

e-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com

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