Betting on biotech

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Articles - May 2013
Monday, April 29, 2013

BY PETER BARNES

0513 FOB Conversation MedicalResearch
Jennifer Fox, executive director of OTRADI, in the soon-to-be-completed South Waterfront bioscience incubator.
// Adam Wickham

A South Carolina native, biologist Jennifer Fox, Ph.D., followed research opportunities to Tulane University, Northwestern and, eventually, the University of Oregon, where her work focused on drug resistance in breast cancer. In 2008 she moved to the Oregon Translational Research and Development Institute (OTRADI), a nonprofit that helps scientists fund and execute advanced bioscience research. Now, as OTRADI’s new executive director, 39-year-old Fox will oversee a 13,000-square-foot business incubator hosting startups like Aronora, a researcher of cardiovascular drugs, and AbSci, which is developing an antibody production technology. Oregon Business caught up with Fox as the organization prepared to move into its new space in Portland’s South Waterfront district. There OTRADI hopes to entice more venture capital in a sector known for its robust growth and high-paying jobs.

OB: Commercial real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle recently ranked U.S. regions with the largest bioscience presence. Seattle came in 10th. No Oregon city made the list. What makes Portland a good place for investment in this field?

Major research universities and talent. We have a place like OHSU that’s one of the largest employers in Portland and has a great deal of grant funding for research products. If we don’t create the kind of ecosystem that fosters that and keeps that within the state, we see what’s happened in the past — a product gets to a certain stage and then gets pulled down to California or up to Seattle.

OB: Why is that?

It takes so long for them to get products through the FDA approval process — about 12 years from start to stop to get from an idea to a drug stage, and they say $30 million on average. A lot of times companies — Aronora is a good example — get a product to a certain position by writing their own grants. But you get to the stage they call the “valley of death,” where you need a great deal more money and deeper pockets to get the drug all the way through the approval process. That’s when you partner with, perhaps, a larger company. That’s something we can help them do as well.

OB: Other industries already benefit from business accelerators hosted by Oregon universities, nonprofits and even Nike. What other resources unique to bioscience companies will OTRADI offer?

Our incubator is going to have specialized equipment for bioscience, which is cost limiting to a small bioscience company. You’re not going to want to build out your own laboratory with a fume hood and a tissue-culture hood and giant robots and machinery that you might need to get the work done. We will have that available in the shared facility, and have people here with the expertise to teach people how to use these pieces of equipment.

OB: What supporting industries could also benefit from a growing bioscience cluster?

In Oregon people would say our main strength is medical-device technologies or diagnostics. And those aren’t pharmaceutical drugs; those are actual you-can-put-your-hands-on-them products. So you could have materials. You could have medicinal chemistry. You’ve got companies across the state that are working on the reagents and the ingredients that scientists use to promote their research, and they like to be near companies that are engaged in this.

OB: Do you ever miss working in the lab now that you’re surrounded by emerging companies and promising research?

I do miss my research. But the great thing about working at OTRADI is having a new line on different topics and different areas all the time. Someone might come in who’s interested in cancer, or hormone signaling, or endocrine disruption, or anything that I’ve done in my past, and it’s great. But someone might come in with something completely new. It’s a challenge and it’s been great. It’s never boring.

 

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