As reported by the Hartford Business Journal, August 30, 2010.
Center Takes Shape
By Greg Bordonaro
In the shadows of the UConn Health Center in Farmington, scientists, small incubator companies and commercialization executives have been quietly moving into a new 117,000-square-foot Cell and Genomic Sciences building recently opened by The University of Connecticut.
It’s a facility that school officials and state economic development directors say could be the latest, and one of the most significant steps, in growing a bioscience cluster in Greater Hartford.
The building, which received $52 million in renovations, is possibly the only one of its kind in the country, UConn officials say. It is designed to spur collaboration that will turn UConn research into marketable businesses or products. And it brings together under one roof many of the key players involved in that process.
World-renowned stem cell scientists are working side-by-side with budding bioscience incubator companies. And business executives from UConn’s Office of Technology Commercialization have offices near labs where future therapeutic developments are being developed.
The facility has already attracted two new bioscience companies from outside the region, and four others are making it their home. One company has moved there from Science Park in New Haven, the renowned biotech incubator site near Yale University.
And in conjunction with other recent developments, including the proposed $362 million renovations to the UConn Health Center, the creation of a bioscience enterprise zone and the state’s $100 million stem cell research initiative, the future possibilities are stoking optimism.
“I think they have put together all the right pieces to create a biotech cluster in the Farmington and Hartford area,” said Paul Pescatello, the president and CEO of Connecticut United for Research Excellence, which promotes bioscience growth and development in the state. “UConn has made wise investments on the intellectual capacity and infrastructure side that I think are going to pay dividends.”
Historically Greater Hartford, which has long been known as an insurance and financial epicenter, hasn’t been a bioscience hub.
But with the need to diversify and expand a stagnant economy in the region, bioscience is an industry state and local officials hope could spur future growth, said Rita Zangari, interim director of the Office of Technology Commercialization.
The key to establishing that cluster is the interplay of several factors, Zangari said.
Collaboration within the health care community is a must, but it’s been lacking in Greater Hartford, officials say. That changed earlier this year, when Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced that a deal had been struck to create a University of Connecticut Health Network, which would establish a partnership among major players in the state’s health care industry, including Hartford Hospital, Saint Francis Hospital, and the University of Connecticut.
The deal included plans for a proposed new patient tower and renovated academic and research facility at John Dempsey Hospital in Farmington.
It also established a bioscience enterprise zone in Farmington, Hartford, New Britain, and Bristol, which will offer tax breaks to private companies that create jobs and work with UConn Health Network partners.
Connecticut’s 10-year, $100 million investment in stem cell research is also playing a major role by making the state a powerhouse in the industry and helping to attract top scientists.
“I think that all this legislation will be a catalyst for growth in bioscience startup, tech transfer, and health care companies,” said Joan McDonald, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development.
McDonald said she’s not willing to predict that bioscience will eventually supplant financial services industry in the region, but it’s likely to become a much larger player.
Regardless, the new Cell and Genomic Sciences building, located at 400 Farmington Ave., is designed to maximize the state’s investment by establishing an infrastructure to support turning scientific discoveries into therapies for diseases.
Research projects include the design and construction of new laser-based microscopes, computer simulation of living processes inside cells and sequencing of human and animal genomes.
The former research and testing facility — located across the street from UConn’s Health Center campus — — is equipped with the latest technologies for studying cells and their genomes. It includes research labs, offices and incubator space for businesses eager to commercialize stem cell science.
It is designed to have open labs that flow into each other and office areas located on hallways running between labs. Putting scientists, researchers, and business minds side-by-side is meant to spur collaboration.
Three major research programs are being re-located from the Health Center to the new facility, including the UConn Stem Cell Institute and the Department of Genetics and Developmental Biology.
The new building also will expand UConn’s incubator program by providing offices, conference rooms and labs for six start-up biotech companies.
Among them is Cheminpharma, a three-year-old incubator that recently moved from Science Park in New Haven.
Uday Khire is the CEO and founder of the company, which provides drug discovery services to biotech and pharmaceutical companies. He said Cheminpharma moved to UConn’s new space because it puts them under the same roof as researchers and other incubator startups.
“When we were in Science Park, we were about two blocks away from Yale,” said Khire, whose team of researchers is developing a cancer compound. “Here we are inside. We are next door to stem cell researchers, which I think is the most important thing.”
Cheminpharma is in the early stages of its research and is looking for financing. Being part of the incubator program allows the company to collaborate with other bioscience startups, and provides access to instruments and tools that would be costly otherwise.
“It’s a lot more affordable here,” said Khire, who is a former researcher at Bayer.
The new facility also attracted Jolinda Lambert’s new startup Innovatient Solutions, which is developing patient quality management and assessment software. The health care technology firm is working with the UConn Health Center, so its new location across the street is convenient.
“The university and the health center are a great forum to help develop a patient satisfaction, quality management software application,” said Lambert, who is anticipating a beta deployment of the company’s software sometime early next year.
Of course, growing a bioscience base isn’t a sure bet, and can be a risky economic development initiative.
Bioscience is a time- and capital-intensive industry. It can take years or even decades for research to turn into marketable products or therapies. A lot of bioscience research also doesn’t pan out.
Politics is also involved. Just last week, a U.S. judge blocked the federal government from funding research involving human embryonic stem cells, dealing a major blow to the scientific community, and creating much uncertainty about the future of the industry.
“Connecticut’s investment in bioscience is somewhat risky, but it’s a risk we have to take,” McDonald said. “We are proud of the R&D that goes on here and I think it’s a risk worth taking.”
Above, officials of Innovatient Solutions -- from left, Jolinda Lambert, Bill Emerson, and Pat Caruso -- stand outside the University of Connecticut’s incubator space in the new Cell and Genomic Sciences building in Farmington. Top right, Mark Van Allen, president of UConn’s R&D Corp., is in charge of developing UConn research into startup companies. Bottom right, Ren-He Xu, director of the human embryonic stem cell core lab, is one of the world-class scientists that have been drawn to UConn in recent years. He is an expert in growing human embryonic stem cell lines and was recruited heavily by several schools in California. He chose UConn because of the state’s $100 million stem cell initiative.