A Year Later: Indie Scientist, Ethan Perlstein

Theral Timpson

Social media sites are all the fad.  But how much are they really impacting life science?

Ask Ethan Perlstein that question, and he’ll tell you “a lot.”  

We featured Ethan last July in an interview, Life Scientist Goes Indie.  Moving to the Bay Area and living on his savings, Ethan was sharing some big ideas over social media sites, his blog, and with any reporter who would listen.  He talked of moon shots and breaking into the rare disease area with an entirely new kind of drug development, what he calls evolutionary pharmacology.    And he wouldn't be going the typical academic route.  He was done with academia and grants from the NIH.  He would try other funding routes.  He was going indie and encouraging his fellow scientists to do the same.

So we followed up with Ethan to see how that has worked for him.   Were his ideas doable, or were they just the understandable rebound of an ego that had been hurt by the system?    In short, does going indie really work?

The answer is looking pretty good.   Ethan is now operating in a new lab at [email protected] in San Francisco.  He has raised somewhere north of one million dollars and is joined by a team of five and cadre of top tier advisors.  Indie science is taking shape.

Video clips from our interview with Ethan

Let’s back up a bit.  Ethan ran a lab as a postdoc at Princeton where he got an independent research fellowship to work on validating a new evolutionary, yeast-based approach to studying how drugs work.  Then the fellowship ran out.  He was out on the street as so many postdocs are today.  Ethan applied around the country at thirty universities where he might continue his career.  None of them accepted him.

"Just hang in there and keep trying," he was told.  "This is typical for young scientists today."

Or he could have joined industry.  

Neither appealed to Ethan.   He decided to go rogue.

And the timing was right.  No sooner did he take to Twitter and blogging, then the world spoke back to him, saying, tell us more.  He became a media favorite with a vision of breaking out of the academic system-what he calls  the “postdocalyse.”   He gave crowd funding a shot--and succeeded.    Soon the Wall Street Journal was writing about him.  

Since then he has turned his ideas into a new reality.  He calls it Indie Science, which he defines as a combination of the good parts of academia and the commercial enterprise.  

“We let the curiosity drive the research as in academia, but insist on deliverables typical of industry,” he says.

The name Ethan has chosen for his enterprise, Perlstein Lab, PBC, reflects this combination of academia and industry.  PBC stands for Public Benefit Corporation, a new class of corporation that allows companies to pursue profit as well as a strong social or environmental mission.  Standard corporations must pursue shareholder value.  But a PBC can also build value for the stakeholders--employees, suppliers, a community, or the environment.  

As we sit in the shared conference room at QB3 and catch up on the last year before we look in on the actual lab, I can’t help but wonder if the name “Perlstein Lab” will become something bigger than one scientist’s independent accumulation of bench and researchers.  Will Perlstein Lab represent a new model of biological research and drug development?

Ethan attributes his success this year in building the Indie Science brand to Twitter, his blog, and the chance to hang out with the team of a start-up.

I know first hand that Ethan is very active on Twitter, but how does that turn into funding, I ask.  He says that if there’s been a conversation happening about rare diseases, he’s usually jumping into the middle of it.  One of the tweets he wrote impressed the CEO of  a drug development company in the rare disease space.  The CEO was also an independent investor.  Now he's Perlstein Lab's top investor.  Other investors came much the same way.  

Ethan says the early partners of the business, such as patient advocacy organizations and advisors have come through his media coverage, most importantly the Wall Street Journal article.

I ask Ethan to tell me more about the Indie Science brand.  What is it?  And is it duplicatable by others?

Team at Perlstein Lab, PBC

Perlstein says that his weekly lab meeting is a lot like those that happen in the university.   He refers to his team as "academic castaways."   The scientists at Perlstein Lab, PBC will be more free, he says, to pursue their own curiosity than those in a typical drug development company.   In addition to the lab meeting, the team gets together each Friday for happy hour where they are all peers. (For more details on indie science culture, see video clips of our interview with Ethan above. And for more on the team members, they're featured nicely at the Perlstein Lab blog.)  

Ethan’s lab is housed at QB3 which is no small part of his success.  This is an incubator space sponsored by Janssen Labs that has been reported on widely and houses some promising startups.  Significantly, Perlstein and his team have saved over a quarter million dollars in capital equipment that is shared among the various labs at the incubator.

Perlstein is doing what he calls evolutionary pharmacology, using simple model organisms such as yeast for research.  These organisms grow faster and therefore potentially offer a quicker timeline. Part of a wave of recent  research into the rare disease space, this new approach has yet to prove itself.  

Still, to get this far, one must acknowledge some success in breaking out from the traditional funding system.  With big pharma being more open to non-traditional partnerships, one can easily see Ethan finding an exit for his assets.  

Doug Crawford oversees the QB3 facility where Perlstein Lab, PBC is located. He recognizes Ethan's trailblazing.

"Ethan has proven that there is a larger and more diverse community of investors interested in early stage life science than we have been accessing," Doug told me. "I think he is out in front of what could become an important trend."

We stroll over to the lab itself. Our chat is immediately cut off by one of the scientists asking Ethan a question.  The team--who would otherwise be looking for academic research positions--has yet to do any real research.  They are busy setting up equipment and validating protocols.   As Ethan poses for some pictures with the team, he continues to fill me in on some of the supplier partnerships, such as that with the virtual lab manager, HappiLabs. Before we leave, he begins to talk of an Institute for Rogue Scientists.   

I can see myself coming back in another year to chat with some of the rogue scientists at Perlstein Lab, PBC.  What work will they have accomplished?  Will the investors be happy?  Will Perlstein Lab, PBC be that different from any another biotech?

Ethan goes by the traditional title of CEO and says he's not able to work at the bench anytime soon himself.  Like any CEO, he has to raise more money.

What then is a rogue scientist?  I ask.

“One who operates in a more creative space,” he replies.  “We don’t have to live or die by what the gatekeepers say.”