Birmingham’s Innovation Depot boosts biotech pipeline, entrepreneurial ecosystem

Birmingham’s Innovation Depot boosts biotech pipeline, entrepreneurial ecosystem
Kate Hayden, director of research for Blondin Bioscience, works in the company's lab space at Birmingham's Innovation Depot. The company is part of a heavy biotech presence at the business incubator. (Blondin Bioscience)

Birmingham’s Innovation Depot has played a key role in growing Alabama’s biotech industry, with standout facilities, strong ties to world-class researchers and an extensive network of contacts that help new firms make their mark in the field.

The business incubator is home to a wide range of startups, but its benefits for biotech companies are especially significant, President and CEO Devon Laney said.

With 25,000 square feet of wet lab space, a rarity for incubators, Innovation Depot offers a readily available set-up.

“Instead of having to find a space and spend money on converting it to a suitable wet lab, they can walk right in, set up shop on Day 1 and be ready to go,” Laney said.

Innovation Depot also has a strong, longstanding partnership with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and sits just two-and-a-half blocks from its campus, fueling synergy.

“We are a part of the UAB culture, and serve as a conduit and outlet when someone is taking technology developed at UAB and looking for a place to grow and commercialize it,” Laney said.

Economic impact

Innovation Depot is designated as an international “soft landing spot” for foreign companies looking to enter the U.S. market. Before they fully commit resources to building or renovating a facility, they often send advance teams to build relationships with banks, utilities, vendors and others.

For example, Innovation Depot provided office space and introductions to the local business community for British startup Oxford Pharmaceuticals, prior to the opening of the company’s new manufacturing plant in Birmingham.

In 2015, Innovation Depot had 104 member companies that employed more than 800 people, according to its latest annual report. Altogether, those firms raised more than $27.7 million, predominantly through venture capital and angel investors, and they reported $161 million in combined gross sales.

Since 2010, the economic impact of Innovation Depot is calculated to be $1.4 billion.

Blondin Bioscience

Blondin Bioscience is developing a rapid test to evaluate the effectiveness of cancer treatment. (Blondin Bioscience)

One of the biotech companies that has found a home at Innovation Depot is Blondin Bioscience, which is developing a blood test that will evaluate the performance of cancer treatment much faster than current methods.

Today, the best way to measure tumor burden is imaging, which can be expensive, said Blondin CEO Brad Spencer. It also takes time, as many patients start treatment and then must wait to see how the tumor responds.

Blondin’s blood test measures a nucleic acid biomarker released by dying cancer cells, resulting in a faster turnaround time on determining the efficacy of treatment.

“We ultimately believe this is something that can be done during a visit to your oncologist,” Spencer said. “She can potentially give you a response that day as to whether or not she’s happy with your treatment and, if not, put you on a different pathway. Additional time benefits cancer cell growth. We want to collapse time.”

Tumor burden is the clinical phrase for the presence of cancer, but there’s also a bigger burden, Spencer said. That’s the overall cancer burden, which is the toll the disease takes on patients and their families, physically, emotionally and financially.

“If we can take some of the waste out of the system by getting a better measure quicker, we think there’s a place for this in cancer treatment,” Spencer said. “We think it is better, faster and cheaper information as to whether or not your cancer treatment is working.”

Last year, Blondin was awarded a $749,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Institutes of Health for its research. The two-year, Phase 1 grant will run through April 2017, at which time Blondin aims to secure a Phase 2 grant, which provides significantly more time and money to continue development.

Innovation Depot has established itself as an ideal home for biotech startups. (Michael Tomberlin/Alabama NewsCenter)
Innovation Depot has established itself as an ideal home for biotech startups. (Michael Tomberlin/Alabama NewsCenter)

Spencer said some people might say the work that Blondin is doing is better suited for other locations, such as the biotech hubs of San Diego or San Francisco, Boston or even Houston, near MD Anderson Cancer Center.

But the company has had no problem attracting talent or support in Birmingham, and the proximity of Innovation Depot to UAB has been a plus, he said.

“In fact, the model of paying Birmingham’s lower costs while attracting higher, national-level revenue is something that more companies will eventually adopt. The molecules don’t care whether they are in Palo Alto or Birmingham.”

Boosting the pipeline

Across the state, more than 660 businesses span the sub-sectors of the biotech industry, from agriculture and pharmaceuticals to medical devices, hospitals and research labs, according to BioAlabama, the statewide organization that represents bio-related companies, scientists and business professionals.

Statewide, the industry’s employment tops 13,000, and its members have secured more than 600 patents since 2009.

Innovation Depot and UAB also are doing their part to strengthen the pipeline of biotech and other startups in the state.

The UAB iLab at Innovation Depot, a partnership between UAB’s Collat School of Business and the incubator, offers students and faculty startup incubation support and mentorship by industry experts and faculty, said lab director Kathleen Hamrick.

The UAB iLab is managed by the Collat business school and serves students in all departments at UAB. Last year, Innovation Depot had nine UAB student-led startups, and that number is growing, she said.

Thanks to the strength of the partnership between Innovation Depot and UAB, students interested in entrepreneurship also have the opportunity to work directly with Innovation Depot startups. This for-credit option is called ENT 445, and companies are not charged to participate.

“The program was first piloted in spring 2016. Already, it has been a tremendous boon for Birmingham’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and has provided students with industry experience that supports their future careers,” Hamrick said.

Other programs include intensive coding challenges that give students direct contact with industry professionals.

“These are just a few of the many exciting, effective ongoing educational experiences that we provide for students, which are helping us nurture the startup ecosystem and the local technology talent pool,” Hamrick said.

This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.

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