Alabama bioscience industry targeted for growth

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – The Alabama bioscience industry already has strengths, but officials in the field have a strategy to expand the sector’s reach, just as state officials once did to nurture a fledgling automotive manufacturing industry into a top producer.

Alabama’s current bioscience palette – according to BioAlabama, the state affiliate of the Biotechnology Industry Organization – includes:

  • More than 10,100 direct employees in bioscience areas from agriculture and medical research to pharmaceutical development.
  • Academic R&D expenditures in biosciences – mostly in the medical sciences – that are higher than the national average as measured by per capita dollars and by total academic research spending.
  • A proven discovery engine in bioscience patents – 493 patents from 2004 to 2009 (an average of 82 a year).
  • Top-ranked hospitals that make Alabama one of the leaders in the number of clinical trials conducted – 305 trials in the most recent numbers, including 37 phase I and phase IV trials, and 268 phase II and phase III trials.

To add to this, BioAlabama is coordinating a five-year plan to grow and better foster life sciences in Alabama. Its goals are to  1.) Spur innovation, led by Dr. Dan Daly of the University of Alabama;  2.) Shape a business climate that helps commercialize innovative science and attract new organizations to Alabama, led by Birmingham lawyer James Childs Jr.;  3.) Get key state government leaders to back policies and actions that promote biotechnology in Alabama, led by Carter Wells of Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology; and  4.) Increase public visibility of the state’s biotechnology industry, led by Alane Barnes of Birmingham’s BioCryst Pharmaceuticals.

The plan is strongly supported by the Birmingham Business Alliance, where Steven Ceulemans is vice president for innovation and technology, as well as by the leadership of Birmingham’s powerful biomedical research institutions – the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and Southern Research Institute.

Alabama can provide the workers needed as biotechnology grows. UAB started a master’s in biotechnology program in 2012 to give students a strong knowledge base in science, technology and research, and entrepreneurial skills to translate discoveries into commercial products. That program is led by Dr. Kathy Nugent,  of UAB, who is also president of BioAlabama.

UAB also turns out about 60 Ph.D.’s in biomedical sciences each year and hosts a large number of skilled post docs.Alabama also has a proven record at training people who would work as technicians, said Dr. David Winwood, a technology transfer expert who is CEO of the UAB Research Foundation.

“The state has demonstrated its ability to provide and train skilled engineering expertise in the work force,” Winwood said. “We’re assembling luxury cars, we’re assembling planes. We have the capacity in the state to expand and improve to help build biotech as well.”

Winwood said the Alabama Legislature has formed a biotechnology caucus, and he says communication and cooperation between all the state’s universities has never been better.

“The mindset is everybody’s working towards the same targets,” Winwood said. “That’s true at UAB, that’s true at the Birmingham Business Alliance, it’s true statewide across all of Alabama.”

”Southern Research and UAB are looking further ahead, with a program that’s still in the planning stage, said Dr. Nancy Gray, vice president for corporate development at Southern Research.

“How do we attract the pharmaceutical companies to Alabama?” Gray said. “The way you do that is to have enough critical mass – talent, intellectual property portfolios, drug candidates, etc. Then you need to go out to those companies and say, ‘I know you look at San Diego, San Francisco, Boston – the biotech meccas we compete against.’”

“We want to be able to raise our hands and say to them, ‘OK, we have the talent here, we have the developable products here, we’ve got this critical mass. You need to shop here too.’”

Gray said she would also take that message to other biotechnology companies and even the investment community. And when companies visit Alabama, UAB – which had $503 million in R&D expenditures in fiscal 2011 – is eager to have them meet university researchers appropriate to the work a biotechnology company is doing, said Dr. Richard “Dick” MarchaseUAB’s vice president for research and economic development.

“For example, if we have experience in diabetes that’s important to your company, we would jump at the chance to be involved in that way,” Marchase said.

“We look forward to being eager partners with the state in recruitment,” he said of UAB. “We’re not shooting blanks – we’re bringing the real deal to the table.”

Many may not realize how innovative Alabama already is. Its $4.8 billion in total R&D expenditures ranked it 12th in the U.S. as a percentage of state GDP, according to the NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators, 2012. In the same report, Alabama’s $2.7 billion of Small Business Innovation Research Funding ranked it 7th per $1 million GDP in the U.S. In the Southeast United States, only Alabama and Virginia were in the top quartile in those two measures.