Celebrating Global Entrepreneurship Week

By Dr. Steve Bares and Dr. Steve Schwab

This is Global Entrepreneurship Week. In celebration of the rising level of entrepreneurship in our community, Dr. Steve Schwab, chancellor of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, and I submitted a guest editorial to the Commercial Appeal. As my BioBiz blog this month, I thought it was appropriate to share the editorial as it ran in the Commercial Appeal on November 17:

“Countries across six continents come together to celebrate an initiative to inspire young people to embrace innovation, imagination and creativity. To think big. To turn their ideas into reality. To make their mark.”

That’s the way participants describe the purpose of Global Entrepreneurship Week, a worldwide observance that began Monday.

As we read words and phrases like “innovation,” “imagination,” “think big,” “turn ideas into reality” and “make their mark,” it is hard to imagine a community that serves as a better example of that spirit than Memphis. If you have read the newspaper over the last few weeks, you have seen story after story suggesting that Memphis is on the precipice of making some very important impacts on the worlds of bioscience and health. There has been coverage of companies coming to market, of research progressing out of the lab, of dollars flowing into our community and of jobs being created.

It was nearly 30 years ago that research on the rubella virus at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis led to the development of a novel test to detect rubella virus-specific antibodies. From that research Viral Antigens Inc., was founded. Fast forward another decade and look at GTx, a local biopharmaceutical company also born of research within the walls of UTHSC. Today, Viral Antigens, as part of Meridian Life Sciences, is a trusted supplier of complex biological materials to the medical diagnostics industry, and GTx is growing ever nearer to bringing several products to market for cancer treatment, cancer supportive care and other serious medical conditions.

These are remarkable stories of success. And what makes them unique is that they, for the most part, came to life before Memphis had built its current infrastructure of collaborative research, investment and incubation. To say that today’s researchers and entrepreneurs have it made, compared with the experiences of Dr. Preston Dorsett (of Viral Antigens/Meridian Life Sciences) and Dr. Mitch Steiner (of GTx), is a little simplistic. But the fact is, we have come a very long way since the days — 30, 20 or even just 10 years ago — when the resources we have today were not in place.

Since Memphis Bioworks Foundation was formed 10 years ago, the focus on creating infrastructure, collaboration, technology transfer, investment and incubation has resulted in a proliferation of scientists and researchers able to incubate their discoveries and take them to market.

Looking just at the Memphis Bioworks partnership with UTHSC tells a strong story about the state of entrepreneurship in our community. Today, there are more than a dozen companies in or recently “graduated” from the Bioworks Incubator that originated in the labs at UTHSC. They have generated millions of dollars in public and private investment and have the potential for the creation of hundreds of new jobs in the near future. The variety is amazing.

Computable Genomix has pioneered a unique approach to mining MEDLINE abstracts, enabling quick and efficient identification of existing and novel gene relationships related to biological clinical research questions.

Med Communications Inc., has emerged as a leading medical communications service provider, helping translate the science of drugs into information about their treatments.

CirQuest Labs is an innovative drug-development services company that evolved from more than 20 years of laboratory experience and now offers a range of preclinical and clinical development services to companies worldwide.

There are many others. Two have recently garnered international attention. Vaxent, an early stage vaccine development company, is on the path toward commercialization for a vaccine for group A streptococcus (Strep-A). Developed over 25 years of laboratory research at UTHSC, Vaxent could have a significant impact on the incidence of strep throat and more serious, invasive infections like rheumatic fever around the world.

And, most recently, RxBio, a start-up pharmaceutical company, has been awarded a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) contract valued at up to $24 million ($15 million in the base contract; $9 million in options) over the next two years. Its signature drug, Rx100, a potent radiomitigant countermeasure drug that may protect against the potentially lethal effects from radiation exposure, is the result of pioneering collaboration among three UTHSC scientists. Receipt of the BARDA contract will allow RxBio to immediately expand the company from two to 20 employees in Memphis.

Nearly everything we have mentioned is rooted in the collaboration between the UT Health Science Center and Memphis Bioworks. The list of amazing research and the commercialization of potential companies growing here is even larger when other university, clinical treatment and medical device companies are included.

Across the globe, entrepreneurship is being recognized this week. Memphians should know that we are near the top of the list when it comes to reasons to celebrate.

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