It has been years in the making—an idea that after extensive planning and preparation has emerged as a business incubator for life-science companies. The BioInnovations Gateway (BiG), which opened in October 2009, is a unique concept that has put Utah on the map for science and business innovation.
When Tamara Goetz, state science advisor for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), first presented the idea of a business incubator, the suggestion stalled because of the risk involved in the long-term return on investment. Goetz realized the facility needed to be advantageous to more people, and that’s when one of her chief passions, education, came into play.
“I have always believed that we need to create programs that bring education, training and economic development together at a crossroads so the programs can be a winning situation for everyone,” Goetz says. “One can’t work without the other if you want it to be totally effective.”
Never before had an incubator facility partnered with the education sector, but Goetz could see the potential. Not only would the incubator provide affordable and equipped lab spaces, but would also partner with local high schools and colleges to give students real-world experience and create an immediate pipeline of talent for Utah’s startup companies. With funding from the Department of Labor, USTAR and a partnership with Granite School District, BiG was born.
According to Goetz, the main challenges for Utah’s life science, biotech and bio-manufacturing startup companies are equipment costs and access to skilled talent—challenges BiG aims to answer.
“On a national basis, when I talk about these programs in other states, people’s jaws just drop,” Goetz says. “They are jealous as to how easy it has been to work with our school districts and universities and create valuable partnerships.”
The BiG incubator hosts 25,000 square feet of space at the Granite Technical Institute, which includes lab space, offices and classrooms. And because business incubation isn’t just about the facility, the incubator also provides business mentoring and marketing for the tenants.
“Inventors are typically brilliant, but don’t always have the business sense they need to run their company,” says Suzanne Winters, BiG director. “We like to partner people up and develop milestones and a coaching strategy to help them.”
Symbion Discovery moved into the facility earlier this year and is now fully operational using the lab equipment for experiments and work. More businesses are currently in the application process. BiG can house up to seven startups at a time and the hope is to have the facility filled in the next six months or so, Winters says.
Interested businesses go through a brief application process to learn if they are a good fit for the incubator. According to Winters, BiG has a list of criteria, but there aren’t many deal breakers. Primarily, companies must be viable startup businesses with the funding to pay rent—which Winters says is under market value—and be “100 percent committed to the educational process.” As with most incubators, BiG is setting up graduation requirements for participating companies. Most incubators have a required cut-off time of three years, but BiG is considering a four-year limit.
“With life sciences and FDA regulations, it takes a long time to get something on the market so we’ll probably see companies stay for about four years,” Winters says.
A Winning Combination
The education side of the program is flourishing as well. BiG has partnered with Granite School District, Granite Technical Institute, Salt Lake Community College and Utah Valley University and hopes to extend the real-world opportunities to students from other schools and universities as well. The incubator is able to provide hands-on lab experience for bioscience programs and students are grateful for the opportunity.
According to Goetz, even though some of the students are young they see the value of working on projects that tie directly to industry, instead of completing assignments simply designed to provide lab experience.
Winters agrees. “The kids involved say it’s so much better than school,” she says. “This is how education ought to be—dealing with real world problems. It’s hands on and the kids can think ‘oh, I had to learn that math to solve that type of problem.’”
Students, in fact, recently played an important role in the development of a medical IV device. The high school instructor, who has been in the industry for 30 years, was impressed with the simple and elegant design, which could move forward to a medical device company and patent process.
Goetz and Winters expect the incubator to gain momentum over the next few years and play an important role in the science realm of education and business in Utah.
“We’ve seen two cultures come together, public education and business, and they are really starting to synergize and complement each other,” Goetz says.