In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Alabama’s iron, coal and lime deposits sparked a booming industry supplying steel to make the machines that powered the Industrial Revolution.
Today, the state’s greatest resources are the brainpower of its people, and the advocates and incubators creating a nurturing environment where innovative ideas in biotechnology are growing into thriving businesses.
“Alabama is home to more than 550 biotech enterprises in all sectors, ranging from drugs, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and equipment to hospitals, medical laboratories, research and agriculture,” Kathy Nugent, PhD said.
In addition to being program director of the Master’s of Biotechnology Program at UAB, Nugent is president of BioAlabama, the state-wide affiliate of Bio, the national association of biotechnology companies.
“The strategic key to making biotechnology a strong economic engine for Alabama is the work force we will need to sustain and grow it,” Nugent said. “We have to develop and train talent with the skills to meet existing demand and to become the entrepreneurs who will build the businesses of the future.
“Our biotechnology program at UAB is in its fourth year, and we’re having an impact. Job placement has been excellent, with 90% of our graduates readily finding jobs in the field, and most here in Alabama.”
A trend in educating and training biotech and life sciences professionals is learning by doing in internships that often lead to job offers.
“There are many emerging companies with projects that need more help than they can pay for at this point, and students that need real life, real time experience to develop their skills. It’s a win for both,” Nugent said.
Joe Garner, PhD, CEO of Soluble Therapeutics, also teaches students in the biotech program at UAB.
“In addition to advanced scientific principles and methods, it’s important for students to learn how to commercialize their ideas,” Garner said. “We introduce them to business concepts and the vocabulary and knowledge base in the industry. They need to know how to identify the commercial value in their ideas and how to advance the most useful ones from the work bench to commercialization.
“It takes a specific set of skills to be successful in the field,” Garner said. “You have to understand the science behind the ideas, and you also have to understand the business environment, how to work with venture capitalists and banks, and how to protect your work with business patents.”
Many emerging biotech and life sciences companies in Alabama are mastering that recipe for success, often as spinoffs from state universities with the help of business incubators like the Innovation Depot.
In addition to Garner’s company, Soluble Therapeutics, other notable businesses growing their way to commercialization at the Innovation Depot include ADV Bioscience, a company working in gene discovery research and validation; Advanced Skin Technology; Agenta Biotechnologies, which focuses on proteoglycans that can be applied to bone or skin or used as coatings for devices; and BioGX, Inc., which provides custom assay design and molecular-based detection.
BioDtech, another Innovation Depot-based company, focuses on detecting, neutralizing and removing toxins. Choice Research manages clinical trials, and Endomimetics creates therapeutic solutions for cardiovascular disease, wound healing and diabetes, and is working on bionanomatrix coatings for medical implants.
ImmunoCreate targets the diagnosis and treatment of neurofibromatosis, and Salient Labs does custom formulation and produces topical skin care products.
One of the stars in Alabama’s growing biotech industry is Discovery Biomed, founded by physiologist Erik Schwiebert, PhD. The company specializes in custom human cell engineering with the ultimate goal of integrating human cell physiology with the drug discovery critical path.
Birmingham-based VIPAAR has also made recent headlines with its remote presence technology that allows surgeons, engineers and other specialists to work together from a distance in a shared space. The technology allows a surgeon to see the procedure and communicate, and to superimpose an image of his hand as if he is reaching into the screen to guide the procedure step by step.
Alabama’s growth in biotech stretches well beyond Birmingham. In Huntsville, HudsonAlpha is a research powerhouse doing remarkable work in genetics and life sciences. In Tuscaloosa, Auburn and Mobile, universities and private companies are moving science from the lab into everyday life.
“Alabama is also home to Southern Research, BioCryst, Evonik, BioHorizons and Centrix Pharmaceuticals,” Nugent said. “BioAlabama, our organization of professionals and companies in the field, is working to create a favorable scientific, business and legislative environment to help that growth continue. We have all of the key components in place to become a major presence in biotechnology. “