N.M. building a biotech bonanza

Scientist Magdalena Torrance with nanoMR uses a pipette to set up a polymerase chain reaction in the clinical testing lab at the biotech company’s operation in Albuquerque. (PAT VASQUEZ-CUNNINGHAM/JOURNAL)

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

 

The University of New Mexico and the state’s two national laboratories have long enjoyed stellar reputations for cutting-edge biotech research and development. Now, aggressive efforts to commercialize new technologies, build an entrepreneurial culture among scientists, and attract seasoned businesspeople and investors to help move discoveries to market have led to a flurry of local startups in recent years.

That, in turn, is attracting national attention and creating greater momentum to build the industry in New Mexico, said Stuart Rose, a pharmaceutical industry veteran and serial entrepreneur who launched the state’s first incubator for biotechnology startup companies in Albuquerque last fall.

“The confluence of all these efforts is leading to industry growth,” Rose said. “It’s triggering a real buzz.”

ABQ biotech employment industry by the numbers 

  • About 8,300 people worked at more than 300 biotech companies in New Mexico, according to a 2010 Battelle Institute study, a sizable jump from 6,500 employees and 170 companies in 2008.
  • Many are employed at a few big Albuquerque-based companies, including Johnson & Johnson, Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute and Tricore Reference Laboratories.
  • About 2,000 people work just at LRRI and Tricore, both of which continue to expand. LRRI, for example, grew its workforce from about 600 in 2009 to 1,200 today.
  • Many companies here do little engineering, focusing instead on testing and analysis of tissue samples or drugs. But a rapidly growing pool of researchers and technicians are focused on biomedical engineering at startups.
  • Those startups attracted about $85 million in venture capital between 2004 and 2010, according to Battelle.

More than two dozen local companies have formed in the past five years to take biomedical-related discoveries from UNM and the labs to market. More firms also are commercializing other types of biotechnology, such as biofuels or new organic compounds developed for environmental, agricultural and other purposes.

UNM’s startupsUNM, in particular, is becoming a hotbed for biotechnology startups, thanks to consistent efforts by the Science and Technology Corp., the university’s tech-transfer office, to flush out potentially marketable innovations from schools and departments campuswide. More than a dozen local startups are now working to commercialize biomedical inventions from UNM. They include everything from new devices for medical diagnostics and drug delivery to novel compounds that can relieve kidney inflammation in lupus patients and protect brain cells against damage from traumatic injuries or stroke.

“Of six new startup companies that have formed since July, five are seeking to market biotechnology,” said STC President and CEO Lisa Kuuttila. “This area just continues to grow and get stronger.”

Most companies are still doing further research and development to prove their technologies while working to attract private investment. But some are well past those early stages and steadily progressing toward market.

Startup nanoMR Inc., for example, which licensed technology from UNM to rapidly diagnose infections in blood, has raised $21 million in venture capital since launching in 2006. It moved into a 19,000-square-foot facility last March and will begin selling diagnostic products in Europe next year.

Another company, IntelliCyt Corp., has been marketing technology globally since 2010 that it licensed from UNM’s Health Sciences Center in 2005.

Quick tissue samples

IntelliCyt sells a fully integrated, fast, cell-screening system for drug discovery and medical diagnostics that can process tissue samples 30 to 40 times faster than typical flow-through cytometers, or cell meters, which are used by most labs and clinics today.

The company moved in fall 2011 from cramped facilities at two incubators Downtown to an 8,000-square-foot building in the north Interstate 25 industrial corridor, said President and CEO Terry Dunlay. It now employs more than 30 full- and part-time people. It will hire about 10 more this year.

New Mexico is well poised to build the local biotech industry because it has superior assets compared to many other states, allowing it to aggressively pursue new biomedical discoveries, said UNM Health Sciences Center Executive Chancellor Dr. Richard Larson.

Assets include top-notch medical researchers and engineers, substantial federal funding, and world-class research facilities at UNM, Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory. Since 2006, UNM’s Health Sciences Center has attracted nearly $800 million in research grants.

“Our funding has increased every year over the last several years, despite national declines in federal research dollars,” Larson said.

Cross-collaboration

In addition, UNM has prioritized cross-collaboration among physicians, engineers, physicists and others. That allows scientists to jointly pioneer breakthrough medical innovations that combine modern advances in things such as optics, computer science and electronics with cutting-edge progress in chemistry and biology.

UNM created a Biomedical Engineering Center in 2005 to advance research and train post-graduate students in biotechnology. The center, housed at UNM’s Centennial Engineering Building, includes 12,000-square-feet of high-tech laboratory space.

Multidisciplinary research there has created a range of potentially marketable technology.

“We’re generatin

g a lot of intellectual property,” said center director Andrew Shreve. “Two startup companies just recently spun out of our center, and two others are in the pipeline.”That bustle is attracting investors and serial entrepreneurs who want to push technology into the marketplace, said Brian Birk, managing partner at Sun Mountain Capital, which manages the New Mexico State Investment Council’s $110 million Co-Investment Fund for equity commitments to startup companies.

“Institutional and individual investors are really starting to mine new technologies at UNM and the national labs,” Birk said.

N.M. attracting entrepreneurs

And, as startup activity has grown, more experienced entrepreneurs have moved to New Mexico, making it easier to find talent to push commercial ventures forward. That’s a huge change from the past, when investors often had to recruit skilled businesspeople and managers from out of state, said Waneta Tuttle, founder and CEO of Southwest Medical Ventures in Albuquerque.

“When you look for people to hire now, you can usually find four or five local candidates to talk to,” Tuttle said.

As the critical elements come together, the business community is beginning to unite around the industry. The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, for example, formed a task force last year to help accelerate biomedical-related growth.

“We want to bring all our local knowledge together to eliminate obstacles that may exist and create opportun-ities,” said chamber President and CEO Terri Cole, also an STC board member.

To reach critical ma

ss, however, New Mexico needs more investment capital, especially at the seed and early stages where technologies must develop more before they can attract larger rounds of funding. A lot of venture investment dried up when the economy tanked in 2008, and it’s been slow to rebound.

IntelliCyt Corp. assay management director Kim Luu and applications scientist Robbie Narang work with the company’s iQue Screening System at IntelliCyt headquarters in Albuquerque. (photo courtesy intellicyt corp.)

“What’s missing is money,” said Stuart Rose, who launched his biotechnology incubator in Albuquerque last August in part to entice more funding to the state.

Still, as the economy rebounds and investment activity increases, New Mexico is well positioned for growth.

“I’m optimistic,” Tuttle said. “I believe we’re beginning a new investment cycle, and this time, we’ll be building on an industry base that’s already formed.”