|FEATURES Summer 2002|
The Center for Emerging Technologies helps transform University-borne knowledge into commercial enterprises.
A year and a half ago, Richard Axelbaum, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Washington University, was at a crossroads with his research into the production of state-of-the-art ceramic, metallic, and composite nanopowders. Nanopowders are advanced materials with a size just one step up from molecules. Axelbaum and two students created a patented flame process to produce nanopowders for use in a wide range of electronic, energy, and other markets.
"We had established a company, AP Materials, in 1997, but there was no facility for the company," Axelbaum says. "The nanomaterials were produced strictly in my laboratory at Washington University. The goal of AP Materials is to commercialize this technology. We needed to take my laboratory process and scale it up to a pilot size and eventually to an industrial size in order to produce industrial quantities of nanomaterials to be sold to end-users, such as electronics manufacturers."
Axelbaum faced the challenge of taking the first step out of his laboratory and into the competitive realities of the business world. But rather than try to find suitable space, outfit it with a science lab, and hire a staff, he turned to the Center for Emerging Technologies (CET), a high-tech business incubator located near Washington University in midtown St. Louis. Since then, the company has grown to more than 10 employees and recently hired a new president and CEO. Axelbaum is chairman and chief scientific advisor.
The mission of the CET is to be the primary force in positioning the St. Louis region as a worldwide center of advanced-technology industries and knowledge-based economic development.
"The CET is dedicated to creating start-up biomedical and advanced-technology companies that are science- and engineering-based," says Marcia Mellitz, M.B.A. '77, president of the CET. "In order to do technology-based economic development, we knew it was essential to be located in the vicinity of a major research university because that is where you find the experts who are on the cutting edge of research."
The center is a nonprofit, public-private-academic partnership whose operations are financially supported by the University of Missouri at St. Louis and the Missouri Department of Economic Development. The St. Louis Development Corp., Missouri Development Finance Board, U.S. Economic Development Administration, and other St. Louis companies have provided capital funding for the center.
Christopher Byrnes, dean of Washington University's School of Engineering & Applied Science, has been chairman of the board of directors since the center was founded in 1996. Other University citizens on the center's board are William Peck, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, and Theodore Cicero, vice chancellor for research. The board also includes administrators from UM-St. Louis and Saint Louis University, as well as retired and active executives of large technology-based companies, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, technology consultants, and professional service providers. Of the approximately 14 companies in the CET, all have some connection to Washington University faculty and researchers.
"You could start up a new company in your garage, but if you do it in a place like the CET, you will have a higher success rate compared to growing a company in isolation," Byrnes says. "The CET is good at putting people with ideas together with sources of capital. I'm a big fan of the CET because it promotes new businesses locating in St. Louis. The center is also good for Washington University. The first company to leave the incubator, Celox Networks, hired every electrical engineering and computer science graduate from the University it could find."
"The CET helps our investigators assess, at a very early stage, whether some of our basic science and our fundamentally important findings have any immediate commercial application," says Theodore Cicero, vice chancellor for research.
The CET is located on Forest Park Avenue in two buildingsone 42,000 square feet, the other 50,000that have been renovated and refitted to accommodate advanced-technology companies. The center offers start-up companies like AP Materials with customizable office space, fully equipped science labs, dry electronic labs, and state-of-the-art internal and external broadband communications with fiber-optic cable and T-1 voice and data connections, among other amenities. Companies at the center also enjoy shared facility-based services, such as laboratory service equipment and business facilities that include conference rooms, a library, and a loading dock. They also have access to vital business equipment, including copy machines, voice mail, videoconferencing, and audio-visual equipment.
"Ten years ago, we did an analysis of health-care technology and medical research entrepreneurship. We found that there was a shortage of St. Louis-focused venture capital and virtually no access to incubator facilities. Now we have both in St. Louis," says Peck. "The CET can accommodate only a limited number of incubating entities, but it points out the fact that there is a pent-up demand and need. More facilities of a similar nature are going to be required, not only for Washington University, but for the community of St. Louis to promote its leadership in this area."
The CET also offers educational programs with professional service providers, workshops with national and local experts, and networking events. The center uses its staff, experienced mentors, specialized consultants, legal and financial service providers, and a host of other local and national resources to help member companies improve their business practices.
Helping raise capital for the new companies is a key focus of the CET, according to Mellitz. "Our companies are still in the research-and-development mode, which means they need capital. Our companies have collectively brought in approximately $250 million into this community over the last four years," she says. "Without the expertise to develop technology at Washington University, this would not have happened. The companies are raising money on the strength of their technology and the market potential for that technology."
Though young itself, the CET has already made a dramatic impact on St. Louis, according to Peck. "If the CET did not exist, either Washington University would have to create an incubator on its ownwhich is difficult if not impossible for most universities to door the faculty would have to ally more closely with established pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. That would basically take business away from St. Louis and provide the investigators with less of an opportunity to pursue their own dreams," he says.
Two investigators from WU's School of Medicine have benefited from the opportunity to pursue their dreams: John McPherson, associate professor of genetics, and Richard Wilson, associate professor of genetics and co-director of WU's Genome Sequencing Center. Together, they founded Orion Genomics®, an agricultural research company, with two other researchers from another state.
The company is dedicated to improving crops through a better understanding of the structure and function of plant genes. Its proprietary GeneThresher platform technology enables the rapid discovery of genes responsible for important agronomic traits in cropssuch as corn, wheat, and soyat a fraction of the cost and time of traditional methods.
Four years ago, they moved the company into the Center for Emerging Technologies.
"At the time, John and I had the task of looking around St. Louis to find some office space, some wet lab space, as well as some big open space for doing various types of production genomics," Wilson says. "The CET was the only place that had existing wet lab space. Compared to going into business on your own, the CET offers a great deal to young companies like ours."
Symbiontics, Inc. is another company that is experiencing the benefits of being nurtured at the center. Symbiontics was co-founded in 1996 by Stephen M. Beverley, the Marvin A. Brennecke Professor of Microbiology at the School of Medicine. Symbiontics has been in the CET approximately two years and recently moved into a 2,000-square-foot lab. The company currently employs five people.
"We have cell culture, molecular biology, and protein purification equipment. We can pretty much do everything from recombinant DNA work to studies in cell culture systems," says Jonathan H. LeBowitz, vice president of research. "It would be impossible for us to do what we've done in another environment. The facility has everything that we need, and it is provided at a cost that we couldn't find anywhere else."
Symbiontics is working on methods to develop, produce, and sell novel human therapeutic protein production and delivery systems using genetically engineered symbiotic microorganisms. The company has a strong intellectual property portfolio including issued U.S. patents that cover its original Therazoan® technology and its recently unveiled, advanced technology called Glycosylation Independent Lysosomal targeting (GILT) technology. GILT technology can be applied to a group of human lysosomal storage diseases, a treatment market estimated by some analysts to be as large as $3 billion per year.
"The CET helps our investigators assess, at a very early stage, whether some of our basic science and our fundamentally important findings have any immediate commercial application," says Cicero. "Washington University's fundamental role is to develop the knowledge itself, but part of the effort also must be directed toward transferring that technology to the public sector as quickly as possible. That is the role the University plays in society and certainly in the St. Louis region and in the state of Missouri. The University is probably one of the predominant forces that will generate new intellectual knowledge in the region, and the CET is the next step in commercializing that knowledge."