Biotech Incubator Opens In North County
ST. JOHN: A new biotech incubator opens tomorrow in Carlsbad. Founders hope it will break the mold on biotech research and create a more accessible path to invasion and research. One of its cofounders is in-studio to tell us about it. JACKSON: Thanks for having me on. ST. JOHN: And a scientist who plans to use the space for her own research. BOBKOVA: Thank you for having me. ST. JOHN: Joseph, why is this the right time to launch this venture? JACKSON: We're at a unique point in the history of technology, we believe. It came out of the academic environment where the only people that had access to computers were people at MIT or Berkeley and then we saw this incredible Democratization of the technology to the point where everyone carries this thing around in their pocket. So a similar trend has been underway in the last 20 years? Life sciences. If we look at what's happened with the cost of DNA sequencing. ST. JOHN: Give us a sense of your background. Where are you watching from? JACKSON: So I've been sort of watching this since 12 years ago. I was an undergrad originally. And I was thinking about this because of when I was seeing happening with file sharing and the disruption of the media industry overnight with the arrival of these peer to peer file sharing system, Napster being the first. I was at Harvard, and right across the way, MIT was the beginnings of this field that is now be called synthetic biology. They brought a different perspective, an engineering perspective from biology. They came from a science background, and their idea was how can we begin tow program biological systems to bring a degree of predictability to this field. ST. JOHN: Does this mean it's changing how it costs to do the research? JACKSON: Sure. The whole guiding of the synthetic biology movement is in the near future, we will be able to be design, build, and test these biological systems much more quickly than it has ever been in the past. And what's driving that is the cost of synthesizing DNA. So we've heard about this, $1,000 to consequence every man, woman, and child. But in the near future, it's going to be much less expensive to print the DNA, to construct the model that you need to test. And that could change everything from biofuels to personalized medicine. What it's also doing is introducing a lot of new people to this field who want to come and tinker with this technology. ST. JOHN: So on one hand, you have this amazing explosion of possibilities, but on the other hand do you feel like the model for the way science research is being funded is broken in some way? JACKSON: Well, absolutely. We're under tremendous strain at all vessels right now because of the NIH budgets being cuts, and everybody is affected by sequestration. This is the buzz word of the day. That's having ripple effects throughout our usual ways of supporting science. So crowd-funding is become an alternative for sciences, for the public to appeal directly to the government to support their research projects. ST. JOHN: Okay, tell us your background. BOBKOVA: Yes, I'm a pharmaceutical scientist. My background is in drug discovery. I am a part of a new biotech start-up. In particular they would be interested to find - ST. JOHN: The kinds of drugs that would stop cancer from spreading. BOBKOVA: From spreading. The majority of patients would die not because of the primary tumor but because of metastasis. That would help a lot of patients. ST. JOHN: Why would you not do that research with a large company? BOBKOVA: Well, this is a very good question! [ LAUGHTER ] BOBKOVA: Large companies are pursuing different avenues. But very often, you hear this dogma paradigm that you have to fit in. If you have a truly innovative idea, it will not be recognized until you show some results. The true innovation, and it is known fact that an overwhelming number of drugs on the market were found by small companies, the latest recession hit very badly on the level of investment and funding. ST. JOHN: Well, that's right. So your saying that the real innovation seems to be coming from the smaller grassroots companies. Why is that? Why aren't the large companies having more success? BOBKOVA: Well, if we look what happens in the history of any organization. They start out being very creative, but the more people the more processes and bureaucracies evolve over time, and the more difficult it is to get the ideas recognized. ST. JOHN: And the other thing is that as a researcher, your research is the property of the company you're working for; correct BOBKOVA: Yes. ST. JOHN: I don't know how much of the benefit you actually get. BOBKOVA: None. [ LAUGHTER ] ST. JOHN: So the incentives are less if you're working for a large company. BOBKOVA: Absolutely. But I would say my primary is to try to find those new drugs that are currently not being addressed adequately by large companies. ST. JOHN: How would this help you? BOBKOVA: Well, it's a fusion of disciplines. So you don't find only biologists like me. But also builders of 3D printers, optical engineers. I feel that this is the place to be! ST. JOHN: And why Carlsbad, Joseph? JACKSON: Well, we've been very lucky to have extremely proactive forward-thinking local government. And they high country wanting to attract a team to this space as far back as 2009. They were searching for someone who would come in. We were fortunate to talk with them about this unique partnership. ST. JOHN: They have a large number of biotech companies already. JACKSON: It's part of Thermo and Isis. Right within a 1-square mile radius, principally. ST. JOHN: So have you had a chance to talk to them? They must be aware that even though you're small -- JACKSON: Yes, we've talked about ways we can collaborate. And everyone is extremely excited. We're unveiling the space tomorrow. And we'll be able to start having regular weekly meetings where the companies can come into the space, talk with entrepreneurs working in the space, and see if there are particular needs that could align. ST. JOHN: So what can people who might attend the grand opening expect to see? JACKSON: We'll have a number firefighter demo stations sets up to give an idea of the range of individuals set up in in the space. And we'll have food and drink. When you come in tomorrow, we're expecting around 300 people in the course of the early afternoon and evening. We'll have kombucha, another example of how biotechnology is really a domestic technology. It's quite popular these days. ST. JOHN: Is that something that being be evolved? JACKSON: It's something one of our members has already started making in the space. And it's just a fun way to introduce people toy this concept that there's things you can homebrew literally in this space. ST. JOHN: Interesting, you've got people like Katarina who is looking for a cure for cancer and other people who might be looking for a homebrew product. JACKSON: Right. Or just a small side business, a lifestyle business. We have one fellow who developed a way to make gluten-free beer. So there's all sorts of unexpected things that are coming forth that you wouldn't immediately think of when you say biotech. ST. JOHN: Aren't there some risks that people who are not fully trained scientifically might do something dangerous with this research? JACKSON: Sure. This is something that has come up in the past. We have an orientation training process. We review the kinds of work that's going to be done on our premises. Wife spent years since 2010 having annual outreach events with the FBI and other government agencies around this whole movement. There are labs setting up all oaf the world today, and everyone is very cognizant of what is the future ever the synthetic biology. And we believe this is much more safe than people doing stuff in their garage. We have experts here, everyone knows what's being done in the plan. It's a very low risk of something going wrong. We have our committee that really your sees lab operations. We know everything that's on premises as far as what type of yeast strain, what type of organism. ST. JOHN: And is this somewhere where someone could come and find synthetic mentors? JACKSON: Right. We've created a few different levels of users, varying expertise abilities. So we'll have our day to day tenants who are working there all the time, and then our night and weekends warriors. And we'll have specific events, classes geared toward that where it can make it accessible for someone who has less of a background. We have a goal of launching or helping eight companies within the first two years. We want to be able to support between 30-50 of these individual projects. We've got a variety of different revenue sources that we're developing. Ranging from the renting the space, but also grants, and our crowd-funding campaign is kicking off on Friday. The opening starts 4:30 PM, and runs till about 7:30PM. ST. JOHN: And I believe Carlsbad set a goal of 50 members? JACKSON: That's right. Within the first two year, we want to hit 50, and eight companies. ST. JOHN: And Katarina is nodding her head. You're planning to be -- BOBKOVA: Yes, absolutely. This is a cost-efficient alternative and a very important initiative supported by the city of Carlsbad. ST. JOHN: Sounds like there is a lot of potential there. And you'll need a lot of support! BOBKOVA: Thanks so much. ST. JOHN: Thank you so much for joining us.
Bio, Tech and Beyond’s website calls the lab a hybrid: part science educator, part biotech start up accelerator.
It’s a leap of faith on the part of the City of Carlsbad and co-founder Joseph Jackson.
“We have multiple objectives. I like to talk in terms of democratizing science but also demystifying it and even domesticating biology,” Jackson said.
Jackson has a vision of creating a space where trained scientists can conduct their own “hopefully” breakthrough research and ordinary citizens can come to learn about molecular biology and how to conduct experiments.
He convinced the City of Carlsbad it would be an investment to lease this building to the incubator for a dollar a year.
Christina Vincent, the economic development director for the City of Carlsbad, said the venture fits well into Carlsbad’s identity as a biotech hub.
“It was vacant for the past decade, so a dollar a year is really more than we were getting in the past,” she said.
Vincent said “what some people may not know is that, for the life sciences, we have 24 percent of the region’s life sciences jobs here in Carlsbad, which translates into more than 120 businesses locally.”
Bio, Tech and Beyond is just the seed of an idea taking root in Carlsbad but it has the potential to become a powerful job creator by changing the model of the way science is funded.
“I think everybody understands that the old model is collapsing. They call it 'pharmageddon,’ referring to the crisis in productivity in R and D, where there have been no new drugs discovered to fill the pipeline for big pharma and they have been laying off their workforce right and left, so the traditional career paths are no longer there,” said Jackson.
Jackson said it costs $1 billion and well over a decade to bring a new drug to market under the current system.
Graduate student Leah Cannon said it’s about finding more cost-effective ways to foster future innovation and she believes even citizen scientists could play a role.
“People still don’t understand and are probably a bit intimidated by the by the whole concept of things like DNA and RNA and proteins — how do our cells actually work? How do you actually do experiments," she said. "But the funny thing is when you are on the inside as a scientist, it’s actually really pretty simple.
“There’s a lot of things you can do to find out some really important information with some really simple experiments so we just want to teach people how to do that,” she said.
The idea is to create a fertile mix of citizen scientists and seasoned researchers.
Seasoned scientists are already showing an interest in using the lab for their own private research, because any discoveries done in an employer’s lab automatically belongs to the employer.
Katerina Bobkova, CEO of the biotech startup Allostere, said she has many years of experience of drug discovery with companies like Dupont and Merck, but she’s now launching her own company.
“We are a small molecular drug discovery company, we are currently concentrating on anti-cancer drug discovery and development,” she said.
Bobkova says research lab space can cost thousands of dollars a month, but at Bio, Tech and Beyond, it will cost a few hundred to rent a bench for a month.
“It’s absolutely important for startups like us, you do need lab space, affordable lab space and you want to be in the company of other people with professional background like your own,” she says.
The biggest challenge for this start up incubator will be to raise the financial support to become self sustaining. But the cost of doing things like mapping a human genome is falling fast.
Bio, Tech and Beyond co-founder Kevin Lustig, who graduated from Harvard and has founded two science related companies of his own already, said he’s excited about who will show up to use the lab space.
“There are, in this area alone, hundreds of people, if not thousands, who have a tremendous amount of talent. They could be the next Einstein for all we know, and because of the fact that they were born in a certain situation: they needed to get a job because they started their family early, they never got the opportunity to get that training and to interact with like minded people. So we’re trying to lower the barrier to innovation so those people come in the door, and we can help identify those people that can really help us solve the problems that we face together,” Lustig says.
The City of Carlsbad has set some ambitious goals for Bio, Tech and Beyond: to provide community science education opportunities, grow membership to 50 people in the first year and launch eight start ups in the first two years.