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New DC Area Personalized Medicine Institute Set to Launch Operations

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Ignite Institute is weeks away from opening a temporary space, rolling out research programs focused on translation of personalized medicine discoveries, and selecting a permanent headquarters — after Virginia officials this week promised $25 million in grants tied to creating at least 415 jobs over five years.

The new, non-profit institute will start in about two weeks converting about 60,000 square feet of offices into wet laboratory space at the state-run Center for Innovative Technology in Herndon, Va. Ignite will use the space for one to two years while it builds its permanent home, grows its staff, and develops research programs in five specialties aimed at creating products that would be commercialized primarily in northern Virginia and the rest of the Washington, DC, region.

Dietrich Stephan, the institute's founder and CEO, told GenomeWeb Daily News today that Ignite will house technologies that include genome sequencing systems, a transcriptional profiling facility, a proteomics and metabolomics scanning facility, and facilities for molecular scanning.

The institute's research specialties will be cancers, neurological and mental health disorders, diabetes and other metabolic diseases, pediatric diseases, and cardiovascular diseases — between three and five diseases in each category.

"We'll start with neurological and mental health disorders on Jan. 1, 2010. Later in the year, we'll activate the oncology department and the pediatrics department. Then in years two and three, we'll turn on cardiovascular and metabolic disease, in that order," Stephan said. "We hope to be fully operational with the neuron-disease specific group, and all of our technology cores by Q1 of 2010."

By then, Ignite plans to have moved into its temporary space, and expects to have decided which of three undisclosed Fairfax County sites it will choose for its $150 million permanent facility. The new HQ is projected to contain 300,000 square feet and serve as a base for the "range of between 400 and 500" people it will ultimately employ there.

The institute has begun developing its technology infrastructure and recruiting new staff. "We're staffing up the administrative team, and then, within weeks, we will start the formal recruiting of our physicians and scientists," Stephan said.

Ignite also has about two dozen people working to create its facilities, from interim administrators to the research facility development firm Murphy McManus, to the PricewaterhouseCoopers team that helped develop the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix — Stephan was one of its original researchers — and negotiated the $200 million personalized medicine initiative between Luxembourg and three US institutes, TGen, the Institute for Systems Biology, and the Partnership for Personalized Medicine [GWDN, June 6, 2008]. That initiative spawned its first commercial venture, Integrated Diagnostics, last month.

Two of the Fairfax sites contain buildings capable of being converted to lab/research use within a year, while the other calls for construction of a new building in about two years.

"We'll be making that decision in the next six to eight weeks," Stephan told GWDN.

The new facility will include incubator space for startups, and offices for a syndicate of venture capitalists now being put together.

Stephan said the syndicate "can have early insight into what we're developing. They can help us decide whether to keep going or kill a project based on market drivers. And then they can seed-fund early initiatives to get them into the marketplace."

Key to Ignite's work will be a partnership with Inova Health System, northern Virginia's largest not-for-profit healthcare provider. Inova has committed $25 million over five years to the institute, and has named Stephan executive director of Inova's Translational and Personalized Medicine Center. The partnership is designed to offer Inova patients access to new diagnostics and treatments developed by the center.

Inova — which is based just east of Fairfax County in Falls Church, Va. — was the sort of "high-quality, high-volume, community-based healthcare system" Ignite concluded was needed to cut the time spent bringing the institute's drugs, diagnostics, and devices to market, Stephan said.

But proximity to Inova was less important to Ignite, he added, than proximity to federal officials and agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the US Food and Drug Administration. The institute evaluated the San Francisco and Boston regions before selecting the DC region.

"When we started thinking about where to put this new genome institute, we did a survey of the national landscape, and figured that with the federal emphasis on healthcare reform, and at least verbally on personalized medicine, we wanted to be close to the epicenter of that, so the [Obama] administration could come and touch and feel what personalized medicine was all about," Stephan said.

"We also thought that this region, while it is the national epicenter of biomedical funding, didn't have one of these genome institutes, and wasn't effectively doing commercialization and clinical implementation of all the discoveries in this region," he said. "The institute will act as a catalyst for all of the regional research activities going on."

In all, Stephan said, Ignite has raised more than half of the $400 million it anticipates needing over the next five years for operations — about $80 million annually. The remainder will come from additional partners among prospects he would not name, since talks are in progress.

"You'll probably see a syndicate of DC regional educational institutions participate. You'll see for-profit companies participate in a financial way. And you'll see philanthropic partners be announced shortly as well. These are partners that want a window into healthcare, and the opportunity to co-develop products," Stephan told GWDN.

Securing additional outside capital from those partners, along with creating the 415 jobs over five years, were among conditions placed on Ignite in return for it receiving from the state a total $25 million — a $3 million grant from the Governor's Opportunity Fund toward the cost of the temporary space, then another $22 million to be paid out in four annual installments of $5.5 million.

Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine joined his soon-to-be successor, Robert McDonnell, in announcing the state incentive package at an event Monday. According to Kaine's office, Virginia will also require Ignite to forge research collaborations "of significant value" with Virginia universities.

Those collaborations are expected to start early in 2010. "Over the last year, we've had discussions with every academic institution in Virginia. I think it's fair to say everyone has been extremely positive in terms of their willingness to collaborate in a strategic way," Stephan said.

When the permanent facility opens, he said, Virginia will get something back in return — namely Ignite's space at CIT, which the state hopes to refill with startup life sciences companies.

Joining the state in offering financial support is Fairfax County. It has committed to spend $3 million on infrastructure for the permanent facility, as well as to issue Fairfax County Economic Development Authority industrial revenue bonds toward its construction. The bond issue is subject to approval by the county Board of Supervisors.

Stephan said the county incentives helped the institute choose Fairfax for its permanent facility over neighboring Loudoun County, whose finances prevented it from offering as much in financial support to develop a Leesburg, Va., site.

"Fairfax was able to put a financial package in place for us to build a building that we could not have gotten in Loudon County," he said, while praising Loudoun officials for their effort to assist the institute.

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