New Georgia Tech Biosciences Center assists life-science startup companies

01/31/04

Accelerates technology transfer

With bioscience activity heating up in Georgia, Georgia Tech's Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) has launched a new incubator devoted exclusively to the commercialization of life-science innovations.

The 22,000-square-foot ATDC Biosciences Center is the first ATDC facility to offer wet labs. Equipped with fume hoods and sinks, this kind of laboratory space is important for bioscience companies that typically need special ventilation and purified water systems to advance their research.

Another hallmark of the new incubator is its location within the Ford Environmental Science & Technology (ES&T) Building, a new 287,000-square foot research center that houses a variety of life-science programs ranging from chemical engineering to clean energy. (ES&T is part of Georgia Tech's Life Sciences and Technology Complex, which also includes the Whitaker Biomedical Engineering Building and the Petit Biotechnology Building - all constructed in the last four years.)

"It's unusual to have an incubator integrated into a major research building. Most incubators on university campuses are freestanding, in separate facilities," says Wayne Hodges, director of ATDC and Georgia Tech's vice provost for Economic Development and Technology Ventures.

Yet by being convenient to researchers in the new Life Sciences Complex, the ATDC Biosciences Center enables entrepreneurs and university faculty -- individuals who are typically isolated from each other -- to collaborate more easily. The arrangement also fosters an interesting exchange of perspectives, Hodges adds: "It helps investors and entrepreneurs better understand the interests of faculty and vice versa."

ATDC first experimented with this sort of holistic approach in 1996 when it opened an incubator in the Georgia Centers for Advanced Telecommunications Technology (GCATT) building, home for some 20 research centers funded by government and industry.

Numerous success stories have emerged from ATDC at GCATT, including Digital Furnace, a company formed by Atlanta entrepreneur John Lappington and Georgia Tech professor John Limb that developed software to improve the efficiency of broadband networks. In less than two years after Digital Furnace's incorporation, Broadcom Corp. of Irvine, Calif., acquired the company in a stock trade valued at more than $136 million.

"Having multiple incubators on campus is more challenging in terms of managing the physical space and providing business services to the companies," says Susan Shows, vice president of the Georgia Research Alliance, which supported the GCATT facility and has provided more than $5 million to launch the new incubator. "Yet the benefits of this integrated model far outweigh any complications."

The ATDC Biosciences Center is an important "first step" in advancing Georgia's bioscience prowess, Shows adds: "Although bioscience is growing rapidly, it's still a relatively new industry in Georgia. We're trying to identify our core competencies and build industry around those strengths. By putting startups next to outstanding scientists and sophisticated equipment, we hope to generate more successful commercialization and tech transfer."

Although the road to success is bumpy for most entrepreneurs, bioscience startups encounter even more potholes.

"It's a completely different world from telecommunications or electronics," says Lee Herron, ATDC's general manager of biosciences. "There are more ways for a bioscience startup to fail than to succeed. ATDC works with entrepreneurs to help mitigate some of the risks."

Bioscience startups have greater needs for capital, take longer to get to market and face significant technical risks. They typically operate within a regulated environment, which also complicates commercialization. For example, companies may need FDA approval before they can take their product or service to market.

"Most products must undergo extensive pre-marketing testing," Herron adds. "The ultimate commercial product depends on the outcome of clinical trials, and it's not uncommon to spend large sums in pre-clinical and clinical development only to have products fail in clinical studies."

Yet Georgia Tech is advancing bioscience entrepreneurs on two fronts. ATDC works with existing startups to provide strategic business advice and resources that fledgling firms need to become high-growth companies. And, as a sister entity to ATDC, VentureLab assists Georgia Tech faculty in the tech-transfer process -- moving innovations out of the university lab and into commercial markets. VentureLab works with faculty to identify innovations that have commercialization potential and then link researchers with VentureLab Fellows -- experienced entrepreneurs and managers who serve as business coaches.

The new ATDC Biosciences Center houses both ATDC member companies and VentureLab participants, including:

  • Aderans Research Institute, a tissue-engineering company doing research on hair transplantation.

  • CardioMEMS, a medical device company using microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) technology to create tiny wireless sensors that will enable doctors to monitor heart patient more easily.

  • Focal Point Microsystems, which is creating three-dimensional microstructures with broad applications that range from medical to advanced communications.

  • Orthonics, a tissue-engineering company developing advanced biomaterials to promote bone growth and adhesion.

  • Stheno Corp., which is advancing consumer safety through the development of chemical detection systems.

  • Vivonetics, which is developing a living cell gene detection system for drug discovery and research.

"With a number of Georgia Tech faculty interested in bio-related commercialization opportunities, the ATDC Biosciences Center represents an important addition to the Georgia Tech campus," says Robert Nerem, director of the Georgia Tech's Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience.

Indeed, many companies in the new incubator have strong faculty connections. Faculty members may be inventors of technology that's being commercialized, or they may be providing expertise to assist an ATDC member company. Either way, the incubator's campus location allows university faculty to engage in entrepreneurial activity without sacrificing their teaching or research responsibilities.

Case in point: Gang Bao, a professor of biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech, is co-founder of Vivonetics, one of the first companies in the new facility.

For Bao, who is also a faculty member at Emory University and shoulders numerous research projects, teaching and committee responsibilities, every minute counts. Vivonetics's offices and labs in the ATDC Biosciences Center are next door to Bao's office in the Whitaker Biomedical Engineering Building - a "huge plus" for Bao.

"I can walk into the company lab in less than five minutes to talk with our engineer," he explains. "Not having to deal with more commuting or parking makes my life much easier."

Bao's first entrepreneurial undertaking, Vivonetics evolved from the VentureLab program.

Until recently, Bao had never even considered forming his own company. Yet in 2002, Dr. Karim Godamunné, a VentureLab Fellow with previous startup experience, approached Bao to discuss his research with a new class of molecular beacons - a technology that showed promise for rapidly detecting cancer and diagnosing viral infection. The two men joined forces and launched Vivonetics. Although still in R&D mode, the company is making strides and has won two grants from GRA as well as a grant from the federal government's Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program.

Besides enabling him to juggle multiple roles, Bao says that ATDC has helped Vivonetics by significantly reducing its startup costs. For example, specialized equipment available in the incubator has saved Vivonetics more than $20,000. Launching a company might have been possible without ATDC, Bao says, "but it would have been far more difficult, and the chance of success would be much lower."

In a different take on tech transfer, ATDC's new incubator provides space for companies that cannot be accommodated by EmTech Bio, an incubator on Emory's campus that is a partnership between Georgia Tech and Emory. (EmTech Bio has essentially been operating at full occupancy since its inception in 2000).

When Aderans Research Institute experienced a recent growth spurt, it was able to move out of crowded space at EmTech Bio and into the ATDC Biosciences Center, which enabled the company to triple its offices from 500 to 1,500 square feet and increase its staff from two employees to five.

Not only a benefit for companies, the arrangement also strengthens ties between the two research universities, Herron adds.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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