The benefits of biotech research to society can be great — a cure for diabetes or a frost-resistant citrus tree may lie in the next strand of DNA.
But because of the long-term nature of the biotech commercialization process, often requiring years of experimentation and regulatory approvals, many major biotech products have begun in small start-up companies.
Unfortunately, scientists and entrepreneurs often lack the initial capital to advance such significant discoveries from the laboratory to the marketplace.
“Proceeding from an invention to a product is a tortuous journey, particularly in the biotechnology industry,” says Sheldon Schuster, director of UF’s Biotechnology Program. “The university’s role is to provide support and incubation during the most vulnerable stage in a company’s development.”
That support is manifested in UF’s new $5.5 million Sid Martin Biotechnology Development Institute (BDI), named for the late Sid Martin, a long-time state representative for the Gainesville area who served as an adviser to UF President John Lombardi and ambassador for the university after retiring from the legislature.
By offering an excellent facility and a helping hand to fledgling companies trying to transfer UF-related biotechnology research to the marketplace, university and community leaders hope to develop a “community” of environmentally clean biotech companies that will offer high wages to technical employees, bring in revenue from license agreements and stock options, and spur economic development in the region.
Researchers at UF already conduct more than $60 million annually in biotechnology-related research, most of it in the basic sciences. The goal of the BDI is to help those who want to apply that basic research to practical problems and get products to consumers.
The 35,000-square-foot building adjacent to the Progress Center in Alachua is the “critical link” that will enhance development of university-based technologies and create a regional biotechnology industry, Schuster says.
Start-up companies long on potential but short on cash share equipment that each needs only occasionally and none could afford to purchase individually. All companies must have a UF connection, such as a faculty member who heads their research team or a license agreement based on UF-patented basic research.
The university already has licensed space to five companies working on such products as a treatment for diabetes and kidney stones and new water quality tests.
Ranging in size from 400 to 1,000 square feet, each of the 19 laboratories has access to the highest-quality scientific equipment. They share cold rooms, autoclaves, a darkroom, a fermentation laboratory and a 600-square-foot greenhouse. In addition, there is a library which subscribes to many of the important biotechnology journals and has access to numerous on-line publications. The Biotechnology Program has also located three of its core service laboratories at the BDI — reproductive analysis, genetic analysis and research histology.
Beyond the scientific infrastructure, the BDI serves as a shared corporate headquarters, where new companies can operate in a professional atmosphere that allows them to concentrate on developing their products and impressing potential investors.
But the Biotechnology Development Institute is about more than lab benches and fax machines, participants say. It is a place where a “community of scientists and entrepreneurs” can share ideas.
“You need a critical mass of biotechnology companies to create a sense of community,” says Weaver Gaines, chairman of Ixion Biotechnology Inc., one of the BDI’s first tenants. “Having other entrepreneurs in the building gives you people to go to when you’re doing something for the first time.”
In a carefully choreographed progression, university officials hope enough small businesses will set up shop in the BDI to make it an attractive relocation option for experienced scientists and managers, whose success will, in turn, attract venture capitalists who will invest in the companies and allow them to move into their own facilities, hopefully nearby.
“It’s very difficult for a small company to get experienced people to relocate, because if that company doesn’t succeed, they’ll have no choice but to relocate again,” Schuster says. “But if you have six or seven companies using similar technologies, a strong candidate may be willing to take a chance, because those other companies create a safety net.”
Those six or seven companies in one location also make it worthwhile for venture capitalists to come down and make a visit they probably wouldn’t make to any individual company, Schuster adds.
The BDI is not intended to be a permanent home for any company, Schuster says. Businesses must apply, be reviewed and be renewed annually for up to three years.
“We want them to grow and go,” Schuster says. “The next logical step is to move into commercial space, like at the Progress Center, and then, ideally, to construct their own building across the street.”
The university realizes some companies will not succeed and will have to leave the BDI before they are successful enough to make it on their own.
But because of a unique arrangement wherein tenants pay part of their space license fee in stock options, the university will be a charter investor in the “winners” that do succeed, says Arnold Heggestad, director of UF’s Division of Entrepreneurial Programs.
“Almost half of what we charge for access to the BDI is in the form of stock options,” Heggestad says, “so we are becoming partners with these companies in a very real way. At the same time, the cash they would have spent on rent can be invested in more critical needs.”
By removing as many logistical and bureaucratic hurdles as possible, Schuster says the university hopes to “incubate” potentially successful ideas that might never get started or would otherwise die for lack of resources.
Florida’s citizens have much to gain from the success of companies that start out at the BDI, Schuster says.
“The most obvious benefit is economic development for the region,” he says. “A measure of our success will be when Ixion has to move into a facility that can hold 60 employees, because that will be 60 people in this region working in an environmentally clean, high-paying industry.”
Second, he says, the products that come out of biotechnology hold enormous promise for benefiting society.
“The prizes for success are substantial and highly worthwhile — possible cures for cancer, heart disease and diabetes; vaccines for infectious diseases like hepatitis, malaria and HIV; new food crops that require no pesticides and can withstand drought or freeze; new organisms that clean our environment; and even new sources of nonpolluting bioenergy that could reduce our reliance on oil.”
And the university’s share of revenue from licenses, stock options and other investment vehicles can be rolled back into new research in what Schuster calls “the life blood of the next problem to be solved.”
“Creating a biotech community in this region will have an enormous synergistic effect on what the next generation of scientists develops,” he says. “Just because we’re doing research on diabetes and kidney stones does not mean that we won’t come up with some new insight into cancer.”
Finally, Schuster says the BDI offers enormous opportunities for students, in both the science and business fields.
“There is plenty of education going on here. We’re training students, publishing papers, using these resources to fulfill our education mission.”
Schuster and other university and community officials realize they have a long way to go before they can compete with established research parks like the Research Triangle in Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C., but they are confident that biotechnology can blossom around Gainesville.
“I think we can compete with North Carolina,” Gaines says. “What we need are one or two good success stories of visible companies that have gone public with successful technologies. The technology is here. Now we need to take those conceptual ideas and develop them.”
Using technology developed by UF immunologist Dr. Ammon B. Peck, Ixion intends to develop, manufacture and market products to detect, diagnose, treat or prevent diabetes and kidney stones and related pathologies.
INTELLIGENT MONITORING SYSTEMS
Intelligent Monitoring Systems produces a simple and cost-effective detection method for pathogenic microorganisms in food and water.
One of the first companies housed at the BDI, Florida Genetics performs specific laboratory experimentation services for academic, federal and corporate research laboratories.
Predation uses new technology to produce predatory mites and insects to control pests on high-value crops.
Chromozone utilizes the inherent characteristics of DNA to isolate individual eukaryotic chromosomes in pure form and in quantities suitable for molecular manipulation. The availability of experimentally suitable quantities of individual eukaryotic chromosomes will allow for the dramatic enhancement of general molecular techniques.