Stacy Williams Shuker has been named the first-ever full-time director of the Georgia Center of Innovation-Life Sciences, where she will be responsible for nurturing life-sciences startup companies in the state that are ready to move beyond university incubators, but not ready enough to strike out on their own.
The Center of Innovation-Life Sciences consists of an incubator at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, as well as an office, but no incubator space, within the offices of the Georgia Department of Economic Development in Atlanta.
The department oversees the life-sciences center of innovation and five other centers statewide — agriculture, aerospace, energy, logistics, and manufacturing — each charged with expanding the presence of a high-wage, high-tech industry in the state.
Williams Shuker came to the Georgia Center of Innovation-Life Sciences from the intellectual property law firm Woodcock Washburn, where she worked as a scientific advisor on patent applications.
Earlier, she headed her own business, DaBrain Science Toys, through which she invented a crystal-growing kit for children that was sold at Walmart [BRN, Sept. 15].
BioRegion News last week spoke with Williams Shuker about her new position and the broader challenges of helping Georgia launch, then accelerate, the growth of life-science startup companies.
Your background is as much entrepreneurial as it is science and IP-related. How did you come to be an entrepreneur?
I was finishing up graduate school in Pittsburgh. That was the pre-dot-com bust days, when people were essentially writing business plans on dinner napkins, and getting funding. I was very interested in doing something entrepreneurial. And when I was a kid, I would play with Sears chemistry sets: Metal boxes with all the chemicals you can’t play with any more. But there weren’t that many experiments that I could do out of the box, because you had to go get extra stuff.
So I wanted to un-bundle the Sears chemistry set, essentially. And I came home, and I started working on a kit growing crystal and gelatin. I wound up inventing a kit that grows cross-shaped crystals. It uses gelatin, cream of tartar, and calcium chloride, which are all food-grade chemicals. I was able to get a patent on that, got it into release on a couple of websites, and in very limited release in Wal-Mart. But I could never make the company support itself. So I eventually go get a grown-up job. But I’ve never lost the excitement of being an entrepreneur, taking an idea and turning it into something that makes money.
Did you develop any other toys?
I did not. I spent all my time and energy and money just getting my kit packaged.
Any thought of returning to the toy business?
I still have the patent to it. Probably what I would be looking at is to license it to a toy manufacturer.
What drew you to the Center of Innovation-Life Sciences?
It uses all of my skill sets. When I was launching my science toy company, I worked for a textbook company. I got to go around and visit almost every high school and middle school in the state of Georgia. And I visited almost every county in the state of Georgia. I got to see firsthand the difference between Atlanta and the rural counties. One of the purposes of the Center of Innovation is to expand our strategic industries out of Atlanta, to the benefit of the rest of the state. My Center of Innovation is hosted at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. Even though most of my time I am in Atlanta, I’m supposed to move the life science industry and expand it through Augusta. And hopefully, it would be like tendrils going out of Atlanta and increasing the prosperity of the more rural counties.
To that end, will your Center of Innovation expand beyond the two locations it has now?
I think we would just have those two offices. Each one of the Centers of Innovation is in a different spot across the state. I don’t think there will be more offices, but I’ll be working hand-in-glove with the Georgia Department of Economic Development and their project managers to help them try and expand the life sciences industry.
Have you talked to any partner organizations that might [expand] your center’s presence beyond your Augusta and Atlanta offices, as opposed to starting something from scratch?
There are lots of organizations that we would look to as partners. There’s [the state life sciences industry group] GeorgiaBio, the MIT Enterprise Forum in Atlanta, and the Augusta Life Sciences consortium.
How will you apply your background as an entrepreneur to your work at the Center of Innovation?
The Center of Innovation works in, essentially, the post-patent, pre-revenue space of innovation — especially in the life sciences, where it’s very complicated. We’ve got very difficult technology. We’ve got all these brilliant scientists who’ve come up with all these wonderful new inventions. But when it comes to commercialization, it’s a whole new skill set. You have to learn how to incorporate a company, and get liability insurance, and pay payroll taxes. Going through graduate school myself, and just having the small company that I had, there was a great deal I had to learn about entrepreneurship.
What I like about this position is that it allows me to interact with people who are in the same position I used to be in, and trying to find the resources that they need to become successful business owners. One of the things that I was missing when I started my business was that I didn’t know where to go for advice, and I didn’t know where to find good mentors, or funding, things like that. One of the purposes of this position is to be a clearinghouse for this information, so that inventors and scientists don’t have to get all of it from scratch each time they invent something.
Where have Georgia inventors started out their businesses traditionally?
Each one of the Georgia Research Alliance universities has an incubator, and it has some entrepreneurial resources. But the purpose of the Center of Innovation is to bring all of them together, and help them all work as one. The GRA has done a great job of promoting entrepreneurship now, but I am supposed to be assisting that process for the life sciences industry.
Can you please explain the interrelation between your center and the GRA? Would your center be, for lack of a better phrase, a farm team to bring those people to the center?
Yes, in some respects. We help entrepreneurs by helping them find scientists who want to commercialize a technology, help them find a patent attorney, or introduce them to the funding resources of GRA, and basically help the GRA find good companies.
And the center’s place in Georgia’s overall life-sciences effort?
Essentially, our focus is to help get the innovation off the bench. The Georgia Department of Economic Development has a very well organized life sciences group that helps the whole gamut of the life sciences industry. The centers are more focused on the early-stage part.
In an interview during BIO 2008, Georgia’s Commissioner of Economic Development, Kenneth Stewart, said the state was interested in establishing a ‘one-stop’ shop to promote and expand its life sciences industry [BRN, June 23]. What progress has been made toward that goal?
That bill was submitted last year by [Rep.] Charlyce Byrd [(R-Woodstock)], and it did not get through this year. But we are still working on her vision, and helping make that come to pass.
Will the bill be reintroduced next year?
I’m not sure if we’re going to be submitting it this coming [legislative] session. But I’m good friends with Rep. Byrd, and will hopefully be working with her to implement her vision, if not all at one time, then in small steps.
What are the center’s strengths and challenges as you see them right now?
This position has not had a full-time director. I am the first full-time director. The man who started [the center], Michael Gabridge, was the director, but he was also the vice president of tech transfer at the Medical College of Georgia. He retired, and Chuck Nawrot came in as the interim director of the Center of Innovation, and the [associate] vice president of tech transfer [and economic development]. He’s been tending to the Center of Innovation until now. As the first full-time director, my job entails defining what the center is going to do, creating a plan for processing companies, corralling all the information that they need to know, and then also creating a process by which we help these companies become better at dealing with the business end of innovation.
Did the medical college recruit you for the position, or did you come to it?
Someone from the Medical College of Georgia told me about it, and I applied.
The centers are overseen directly by the state. Is there any move toward running the centers through more of a public-private partnership model, as is the case for business incubators in some other states?
I believe they are going to remain under the auspices of the Georgia Department of Economic Development. It does work in partnership with the university system. All of the Centers of Innovation are hosted by one of the universities in the state of Georgia. There’s a partnership there. But we want to incorporate the tremendous intellectual assets that we have out of our universities throughout the state. So I don’t think that we’re going to be changing that partnership any time soon.
At your Center of Innovation, what services can entrepreneurs and scientists expect for their startups?
At the Medical College of Georgia, which is the one that I’m associated with most strongly, we provide lab space for them; we provide all the infrastructure for doing some of their research. Sometimes we will buy an instrument if it’s important to their company. But it’s an instrument that can be used by the entire incubator. We provide things like pipettes and all the miscellaneous stuff that you need for a lab. Essentially, it’s a very small lab space, and a small office space that you can use to launch a company or, if an outside company was looking for a soft landing in the state of Georgia, they could certainly come to us, and put down roots in a small space until they got their permanent space.
How small a space are you talking about?
Probably 10 [feet] by 15 [feet]. There are some small rooms, and one room that is 600 square feet.
How many businesses are now based at the life-science Center of Innovation?
There are about five companies in there right now.
What areas of life sciences are companies required to specialize in? How will that change during your tenure as director?
It can be pharmaceutical. It can be nutriceutical. It can be medical device. There was one company that came out of the Medical College of Georgia that focused on telemedicine, called REACH Call [REACH stands for Remote Evaluation of Acute isCHemic stroke — Ed.]. If there is an innovation that is in the life sciences space that comes through the doors of Georgia, I’m here to promote and support it.
The companies now based at the center, where do they come from?
They come from the universities’ incubators. They come out of the research universities of the state of Georgia.
Earlier this year, Georgia officials approved spending $7.5 million toward creation of a $40 million, public-private Georgia Research Alliance Venture Fund, intended to finance seed-stage university spinouts with an emphasis on vaccine developers and other life-science specialties. What effect will that have on your center? Do you anticipate seeing more startups as a result?
We certainly hope so. That fund is through the GRA. We’re certainly going to be using our resources and our connections to help any of these new companies coming through that fund.
How will the center interrelate with the university incubators?
The center will not oversee them — my position and the center are independent of the universities — but will certainly work to aid in their success. Among the incubators we work with are EmTech [Biotechnology Development, a partnership of Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology], there’s CollabTech [Biotechnology Development Center] at Georgia State [University], there’s the Georgia Bio Business Center over at the University of Georgia, and then Georgia Tech has lots of incubators.
This center comes out of the state of Georgia, but it works to enhance the efforts of the universities, and helps them to commercialize their technologies.
Have any startups come from CDC?
Certainly if there was a company that wanted to come out of CDC, we would put our resources in the direction of helping them. It’s not specifically [developing] a university’s technology that we assist. We have Center of Innovation matching grants that are to be spent at universities. But just because you don’t come out of a university in the state of Georgia doesn’t mean we won’t help you.
Long term, what do you hope to accomplish at the Center of Innovation-Life Science?
I hope to help more companies come to the state of Georgia, and I want to keep the companies we grow here in the state of Georgia. We’ve grown a lot of really great companies, but some of them leave the state because of funding. I want to make sure we create a more hospitable environment for companies to come here and stay here.