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North Carolina Nanobiotech Innovation Center Has New Director, Cash, and a Game Plan to Grow

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With a new director and the promise of additional funding the summer, the new North Carolina Center of Innovation in Nanobiotechnology has some challenges ahead of it.

For now, the center is planning how to create a venue that would grow North Carolina's established biotech sector by capitalizing on the nanotech sector that has emerged in recent years in the state's Piedmont Triad region.

Brooks Adams, a Richmond, Va.-based professional who, according to organizers, has 14 years of life-sci industry experience, has been named executive director of the center, which is also known by its acronym COIN.

The center is in its initial planning phase, funded by a $100,000 first-phase planning grant from the state-funded North Carolina Biotechnology Center that is being administered by the Piedmont Triad Partnership, the group that promotes economic development in the 12-county region of in and around the cities of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point.

Over the next three to four months, Adams will lead COIN in creating a business plan for spending the $2.5 million the center is expected to receive from Tar Heel State toward a second planning phase. The second-stage cash will start flowing this summer and is supposed to stretch over four years.

During that time, Adams will write a formal business plan for COIN, which most likely will take the form of a nonprofit corporation. Future funding will be tied to milestones "to make progress in moving this technology into the marketplace," as well as "characterizing what the technology assets are in North Carolina, and also helping find new ways to bundle the technology for outlicensing," Gwyn Riddick, director of the biotech center's Piedmont Triad office, told BioRegion News last week.

"One of the big milestones will be making it self-sustaining," Riddick said." Certainly it needs to be done by the time our grant is complete, and preferably before that."

He acknowledged that securing more state funding would be hard at best given the state's budget shortfall, which newly elected Gov. Bev Perdue has projected could reach $2.2 billion through next fiscal year. Perdue, a Democrat, has ordered most state agencies to reduce their spending by 9 percent of their budgeted amounts for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. In January, term-limited Gov. Mike Easley asked the agencies to slash 7 percent off all spending.

That is not expected to be held up by the Legislature, he added: "They recognize that even in tough times, you need to support your big job generators and your high-wage industries. This is certainly one of them."

Donald Kirkman, president and CEO of the Piedmont Triad Partnership, said the nanobio effort could begin operation with state support before moving toward independence: "There would ultimately be a third grant that will fund the initial operations for the first three years of operation, with the goal that this will then evolve into a self-sustaining, self-supporting center, that will be both industry- and private-sector demand driven, and funded."

COIN Toss

COIN is designed to commercialize new technologies developed by researchers through collaborations involving Wake Forest University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Two years ago, the three schools formed a consortium to develop the center and develop other avenues for advancing nanobiotech [BRN, Nov. 5, 2007].

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Last week, Kirkman told BRN the universities sought out his group to manage the grant because it could serve as an "intermediary that would be the central point of contract to be the fiscal agent and administrator of this grant" based on its own initiatives with a number of area higher education institutions, and its history in receiving a previous NC biotech center grant related to industrial biotechnology.

For the partnership, COIN is meant to boost one of three economic sector niches it is striving to grow in the region. In addition to nanobiotech, the regional group has targeted regenerative medicine, and medical technology and devices, according to its inventory of regional biotechnology assets.

NCA&T and UNCG have established a roughly $60 million, two-campus collaboration focusing on nanotechnology: the Joint School for Nanoscience and Nanoengineering. The school will offer both a masters and a doctoral program.

"We're still hopeful that we'll be able to admit the first students for the joint school for the fall," subject to approval from the UNC system's general administration, UNCG spokesman Dan Nonte told BRN last week.

Those students will attend classes in temporary space for the joint school within the recently-completed first building of the Gateway University Research Park, a $250 million, 850,000-square-foot expanse to consist of twin 75-acre campuses in Greensboro. The roughly $13 million, 65,000-square-foot first building at the South Campus — at 2901 East Lee St. off the interchange of Interstate 40 Business and East Lee Street — is anchored by a regional center for the US Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service that opened last October.

The more than 30,000-square-foot USDA regional center — one of four such centers nationwide — houses UDSA's East National Technology Support Center and East Remote Sensing Lab, drawing about 100 technical specialists to the Triad. Gateway is marketing some 25,000 square feet of space there.

Long-term, the joint school will build out its own building of 85,000 to 90,000 square feet within Gateway.

"We are in the schematic design phase, and we hope to begin construction mid- to late-summer of this year, and have that facility up and running by spring to mid summer of 2011," John Merrill, executive director of Gateway University Research Park, told BRN.

The school would occupy the second of three buildings planned for Gateway; the third will be a state-funded $10 million interdisciplinary research facility of 35,000 to 40,000 square feet, for which the research park hopes to hire a design firm "within the next 30 to 45 days."

"With those two facilities, we should be up in the neighborhood of 180,000 to 190,000 square feet of space at the park," Merrill said.

The joint school will build on the nanotechnology research activity established at nearby Wake Forest and at NCA&T. A decade-long leader in fusing nanotech and biotech, NC A&T last fall won an $18 million, five-year National Science Foundation grant to establish an Engineering Research Center for Revolutionizing Metallic Biomaterials. One research program of the ERC — the first to be led by an historically black college or university — is designed to aid children with birth defects and injured veterans through the development of implanted devices with magnesium alloys that can grow without refitting, then be absorbed into the body’s bloodstream with no side effects.

UNC Greensboro has established a Center for Research Excellence in Nanobiosciences, led by Yousef Haik. Last summer, the center spun out its first startup company into the North Carolina Nanotech Accelerator in High Point. Thermiacure hopes to reduce side effects associated with chemotherapy and radiation treatments, such as nausea and hair loss, by attaching nano-size particles to non-harmful bacteria that pursue cancerous tumor cells.

Wake Forest operates a Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials that opened in 2004. Its director, David Carroll, has spun off two companies designed to commercialize technologies developed there: FiberCell, which is focused on plastic solar cells that convert 6 percent of light into electricity through nano-filaments; and PlexiLight, focused uses nanotechnology to develop lightweight, ultra-thin, energy-efficient lighting sources.

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"We are at the early stages of developing research in the universities, and that's why this center of innovation is so important. Instead of creating it after an industry has already been started; it's much better to start a center of innovation at the beginning of the innovation process," Riddick said.

Another priority for the consortium, Riddick and Kirkman said, will be engaging companies in nanobiotech — both Triad-based companies such as Nanotech Labs and Quartek International, and other businesses looking to get into the field.

"Various industries will be enlisted as partners, and they will in some fashion pay for sponsored research that will leverage the university assets in support of their specific product requirements," Kirkman said.

Said Riddick: "The idea is to engage and characterize all of the companies we can fund that are working in this sector, and then really engage them in the process. There will be out of this center of innovation, a science advisory board. On that board will be researchers and academicians as well as industry folks to help chart the course of this."

Merrill said he and others involved with COIN hope that many of the spinouts grow to take space at Gateway: "We're really hopeful that through partnering, we'll be able to bring corporate partners into the facility that will want to be there because of the programs that we're offering, and because of the equipment that we'll have available. If we can attract a good group of corporate partners, that's one of those things that tends to snowball, and that's certainly what we're hoping for — that getting those kinds of folks in there will attract other folks who will want to come and work with us as well."

COIN is being housed temporarily at the Piedmont Triad Partnership's offices in Greensboro. A permanent home base has yet to be decided, though Kirkman said: "I anticipate this COIN initiative would be spun out from our offices and would operate independently or autonomously — we certainly would want to continue to interface with that, but I see our role diminishing once it is established and operating as an independent entity."

Most likely, Riddick said," the center itself is going to be pretty much virtual for a while. It's a facilitating organization that's going to be working with the technology transfer offices across the state in the different universities to move this technology into the marketplace. A physical location is not that important to us right now."

Once the center is up and running, "we would not anticipate more than a couple of folks. It's going to be a very lean. It's going to rely on collaboration, rather than a huge staff of people," Riddick said. "Collaborating and getting people to the table from all these different sectors of industry and research is going to be the real secret ingredient, so to speak."

The academic side of that collaboration, he added, will begin with the universities in the Piedmont region, "and then expanding across the state to all of the universities that are working in this sector."

COIN is one of four centers of innovation carrying out first-phase planning through grants from the NC Biotechnology Center. The other three are the Advanced Medical Technology Center of Innovation, the Marine Biotechnology Center of Innovation, and the Bent Creek Center of Innovation for Natural Biotechnology & Integrative Medicine. Links to all three are available here.

The four are among nine centers of innovation that the NC biotech center plans to create through 2012 by working with university researchers, technology transfer offices, industrial partners, non-profit stakeholders, regional and state-wide community leaders.

"Future Centers of Innovation will boost other industries that rely on biotechnology for new ideas, better solutions and great competitiveness," the biotech center has stated on its web site.

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