By Michael Tomberlin
The biotechnology industry is more unified throughout Alabama than ever before and officials said the potential for growth is seemingly endless.
That was the message at BioAlabama’s annual meeting in Birmingham today, which featured Gov. Robert Bentley as its keynote speaker to kick off the meeting this morning.
“I just want your companies to do well in Alabama and I want to thank you for what you’re doing to move our state forward,” Bentley told those gathered at the Westin Birmingham.
BioAlabama is made up of companies, universities, colleges, economic developers and others committed to seeing the biotech, biomedical and life science industries start, grow or relocate in the state.
Over the past decade, BioAlabama has grown from an entity that focused on commercializing research from the state’s major universities to an organization that has helped unite the various components of the industry throughout Alabama.
Dr. Kathy Nugent, managing director of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UAB and the newly elected president of BioAlabama, said that stronger voice of the industry is being heard.
“There is just no question about it, we’re making a mark in biotechnology on a national level with all of the innovation, the companies, the technology that we’re really driving forward from north to south Alabama,” Nugent said in an interview with Alabama NewsCenter. “The current state of biotechnology in Alabama is great. We’re already establishing a prominent footprint for us as a state.”
That footprint accounts for more than 13,000 employees, more than 660 companies and more than 600 patents.
It is a statewide biotech “ecosystem” that is fostered by the state-of-the-art work being done at places like HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, UAB and Southern Research in Birmingham, and at research universities including the University of South Alabama, Auburn University and others.
Add to that supporting entities like Innovation Depot and many of the ingredients are in place to see the industry grow.
“When you look at the diverse membership that BioAlabama gives voice to in the life science industry, you can see how far we’ve come and also how far we can still go,” said Blair King, senior project manager for Alabama Power’s Economic and Community Development Department. “From R&D institutions to start-up biotech companies, pharmaceuticals to medical devices, law firms to investment firms, there is the shared goal of creating new jobs in this sector statewide. That takes collaboration and communication between all of these different membership groups and BioAlabama is a key to that.”
Art Tipton is the CEO of Southern Research but also has private sector experience leading the former Brookwood Pharmaceuticals in Birmingham (later acquired by SurModics and then Evonik). He said the current state of the industry is made stronger by the level of collaboration and cooperation throughout Alabama.
“We have incredible expertise here,” Tipton said. “I’ll just focus on Birmingham for a moment – the amount of things that go on between the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Southern Research. We have a pipeline of new/early state drug discovery targets that are probably unmatched. We have Top 10 pharma companies visit us and they walk away saying, ‘We’ve never seen anything else like this.’ We have to get them here. Once we get them here they’re shocked, perhaps, but pleasantly surprised with the level of the research we’re doing.”
Bentley said biotech fits into the portion of the statewide economic development plan that focuses on innovation and entrepreneurship. He said much work has been done to complete the groundwork necessary to let those seeds be planted and grow.
“When you try to put together innovation and entrepreneurship and this type of thing, it’s a slow process, but you have to put everything in place in order to get that to take place,” Bentley said. “I believe we’ve done that. I believe our organizational structure is adequate to allow us to continue to grow in the biotech industry. And if the next governor, whoever that may be, will continue that process I think Alabama will continue to grow.”
Tipton said the grant and research money that was hard to come by a couple of years ago is now available again and Alabama’s biotech industry is benefiting.
“Obviously, if you were an organization dependent on federal funding like most universities are, between 2007 and 2014, things looked pretty dire,” he said. “Federal funding is back up and there are a number of organizations across the state doing quite well.”
Tipton said BioAlabama and others need to work to leverage those dollars so they are contributing to the industry’s growth.
“How we foster that and connect that into the private industry so that we work very collaboratively to advance products together is crucial,” he said. “The partnership between the industry and academia is going to be profound in terms of what we can accomplish.”
Nugent said BioAlabama is better positioned to do that than ever before.
“BioAlabama is the anchor to that,” she said. “We’ve had growth over the last year. We’ve put a lot of structure to the organization, which I think is going to help. As we go forward, we will continue to put structure to the organization, build on the strategies that we’ve built and I just think it will continue to get better and better.”
Also as part of the annual meeting BioAlabama named board members and executive committee for the new year.
Nugent, King and Tipton were named board members. Peggy Sammon was named president-elect and King was named as treasurer. Carter Wells is immediate past-chair. At larger executive committee members are Joe Garner, Marshall Schreeder and Mark Suto.
Other board members are Khursheed Anwer, Cecil Bostany, Jennifer Braxton, Andrew Byrd, Michael Chambers, James Childs, Sara Cooper, Dan Daly, Alan Dean, Maaike Everts, Joonyul Kim, Tom Koshut, Devon Laney, Maureen Mack, Eric Mendenhall, Kapil Pant, Brian Pollock, Gene Price, Clay Ryan and Jan Thornton.
Also, BioAlabama awarded its inaugural Element Award to recognize someone who has impacted the industry in the state. The first-ever Element Award went to Jim Hudson, co-founder of HudsonAlpha Institute in Huntsville.