Monday, April 22, 2013

Showcasing Alabama's biotech future at BIO

Perhaps the largest delegation in Alabama's history heads off this week to the annual meeting of the Biotech Industry Organization (BIO) annual meeting in Chicago. The group will include the leadership of the UAB Research Foundation, the Birmingham Business Alliance and Innovation Depot, the UAB-affiliated incubator, as well as experts from universities and companies from across the state.

As a group, most of those heading off to BIO are members of BioAlabama, the organization that works to foster life sciences here by creating the right scientific, business and legislative climate. The meeting will provide its members the opportunity to form new relationships with the biotech industry, hopefully as a first step toward new ventures.

We thought BIO made for a good occasion for the The Mix to break from its usual focus on research, and to instead consider the potential for research-driven economic development in the state. We sat down with David Winwood, Ph.D., CEO of the UAB Research Foundation, to talk about his goals for the BIO meeting and what's next for the Alabama economy. The foundation helps to manage discoveries by UAB researchers (e.g. patent protection), while finding partners that can help them form companies.

The BIO meeting comes just as the foundation is integrating these traditional functions into an larger effort to found more tech-based companies and create an entrepreneurial culture under the auspices of the newly founded UAB Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The ultimate goal: see more inventions save and improve lives while serving as a basis of new companies that spread prosperity. This notion is at the core of  the UAB strategic plan, the new UAB branding campaign and recent remarks by the new UAB President, Ray L. Watts, who will be headlining BioAlabama's science symposium in May.

Show notes for the podcast

1:22 The UAB Research Foundation operates at the center of a world renown, half-billion-dollar research enterprise in UAB, said Dr. Winwood, which features a collaborative group of clinicians, basic science researchers, engineers, etc.  This makes it a great place for those seeking to help students and researchers found new companies. The UAB Research Foundation has helped to create 55 start-up companies since its inception.  

2:19  Despite economic hard times in recent years, Alabama research universities have held their own in fiercely competitive areas in terms of winning grants from from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the agencies and foundations that support engineering.

2:52 Just a few blocks from UAB's campus in the Innovation Depot, which is Birmingham's UAB-affiliated technology incubator. It has attracted more than 90 high-growth companies, many of them led by UAB faculty, which makes it among the largest incubators of its kind in the Southeast.

3:39 In terms of an economic forecast for Alabama's tech-driven economy, Dr. Winwood said the overall outlook is positive, with Alabama's manufacturing sector on somewhat of a recovery path. One shining example is the recent decision by aircraft manufacturer Airbus to invest $600 million to build a new plant in Mobile, Alabama. This represents a stamp of approval of the state's ability to manufacture highly complex engineering products, and the investment will have impact across the state and lead to collaborations with UAB engineers.

4:44 Big challenges remain in the federal budget, making it difficult for UAB to chart its course. UAB researchers have been extraordinarily successful in winning federal research grants, which has helped the school have a $5 billion economic impact on Birmingham. Budgets for agencies like the National Institutes of Health is in jeopardy, however, unless representatives in Congress can agree on how to stabilize financial support for medical research. Huntsville, Alabama, is also dependent on federal dollars that flow through that city's aerospace and defense industries. For these reasons, Dr. Winwood said he is very careful about creating realistic expectations surrounding economic growth in the state.

5:55  Along with biotech strength, UAB and Birmingham have some amazing capabilities in terms of advanced materials design for defense and civil engineering applications, as well as a strong capability in simulation, including the creating of simulated battlefields and surgical suites for training.

7:58  Beyond catch phrases, UAB is uniquely collaborative across science disciplines, Dr. Winwood said. Some of the most exciting spin-off companies out of UAB research have represented combinations, for instance, of neurosurgery, materials design and bioinformatics. This spirit has spilled over from science into commercialization efforts, leading to the emergence of a new model of tech transfer. In the old model, a research got some funding, did the research and eventually told the research foundation so they could file for a patent. With support from the UAB Office of the Vice President for Research & Economic Development, UAB now embeds technology transfer officers in research functions earlier in projects, which better positions them to the watch for nubs of ideas that could evolve into companies.

10:08 As far as big UAB economic development news expected in the coming months, Dr. Winwood talked how the UAB Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship will be up and running shortly. The institute will expand on what the research foundation has been doing for 20 years, but also incorporate more services that accelerate the process by which scientists turn discoveries into new businesses. Some of the new services will be delivered in partnership with the Birmingham Business Alliance, which has a volunteer cadre of business leaders in place to help guide fledgling biotech businesses (market opportunities, financial models, etc.). Beyond economic development, the institute will help to launch a new set of educational initiatives as well that seek to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit in students.

12:35 Dr. Winwood is a member of BioAlabama, which represents more than 550 bioscience entities in Alabama, including those from the pharmaceutical, agriculture, devices and testing industries. BioAlabama had done a nice job recruiting delegates from across the state to attend BIOM, many of which are going for the first time.

12:46 Dr. Winwood thinks the large size of the state's BIO delegation this signifies a growing recognition of the potential economic impact on Alabama of the founding of new biotech companies and of forming new partnerships between Alabama and the biotech industry. This industry sector can have a broad impact on the state's economic well being, and well beyond Ph.D.s and M.D.s. If managed properly, growth is the area could create a large number of manufacturing jobs and change the profile of industries thriving in the state. Beyond medicine, the BIO meeting represents opportunities to meet with companies focused on the advanced agriculture, food and energy industries.

14:44 BIO is where the world's biotech industry gathers and represents a broad collection of technologies that are the subject of research at most colleges, universities and institutes in Alabama. The BIO meeting has perfected a matchmaking system by which the 17,000 attendees can easily find and meet with those interested in the same business and technical areas.

15:35 It often surprises observers from outside Alabama that there are more than 700 technology companies in the Birmingham greater area that represent an unusual capability in specialty manufacturing. In addition, the UAB Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering is renowned for its expertise in building miniaturized, electronic components, many of which are currently in use on the international space station.

18:48  While the BIO meeting represents a great opportunity to meet with industry, Dr. Winwood is working with the leadership of the new UAB institute to create a permanent, two-way online industry portal. UAB researchers will use it to find industry partners, and industry, to review technologies it may want to invest in, and long after BIO ends.

19:50 For those interested in learning more about commercialization efforts or tech transfer in general, resources include the BioAlabama, BIO meeting and the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) websites.

For those on site at BIO, please visit the Southern Research Institute / BioAlabama Booth (#4422A).

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