Proof-of-Concept Lab Benefits NWA Startups

by Mark Carter  on Monday, Jul. 9, 2012 12:00 am  

A new proof-of-concept lab at the Arkansas Research & Technology Park in Fayetteville is expected to help local biotech startups move closer to taking their products to market.

The lab represents a partnership between the University of Arkansas, which runs the park, and the private Virtual Incubation Co., which operates out of the park and grows high-tech startups, most of which use UA-licensed technology.

Proof-of-concept (PoC) labs serve to validate emerging technologies. The PoC lab in Fayetteville was equipped through a $225,000 U.S. Small Business Administration grant put together by Phil Stafford, president of the University of Arkansas Technology Development Foundation, a nonprofit charged with managing the park and transferring UA technology to startup ventures.

What might appear as an insignificant grant on the surface could become a catalyst to bigger things for the tech-based startups spawned at the park. It's already made a big difference for BiologicsMD, the VIC portfolio firm and Innovate Arkansas client startup that recently signed a deal to develop a manufacturing platform for its osteoporosis treatment.

"This is much more than simply new lab space. This is a fully equipped, up-and-running laboratory that means we're able to complete complicated projects in-house," said BioMD's chief science officer, Robyn Goforth. "This ability is critical to our success."

The lab's presence has enabled the firm to begin in-house production of its product, PTH-CBD, and develop other necessary testing as required by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

"The PoC lab is our home base, a facility from where we can accomplish all the in-house tasks needed to move our pharmaceutical product through the FDA process," she said.

Currently, BioMD and Ascendant Diagnostics, another VIC biotech firm, are using the lab. Ascendant is developing a means of detecting breast cancer through the proteins found in tears.

"Having a PoC lab in the park allows VIC and other affiliate companies to import technologies from outside the state and region for proof-of-concept validation," Stafford said. "Moreover, the PoC Lab will provide yet another important research resource from which to foster, grow and retain companies and promote the creation of high-quality, high-wage jobs in the biotechnology sector."

Startups licensing university research often have trouble getting access to the equipment necessary to properly develop the technology. The addition of the PoC lab in Fayetteville eliminates one potential hurdle.

"One of the major challenges in transferring technology out of university laboratories and into startup companies is getting access to the equipment needed to do the development work," said Calvin Goforth, president of VIC, a former UA researcher and Robyn's brother. "The technologies available for license from universities typically require significant development before they can be turned into commercial products. The cost of this development work is often quite significant and the technical risks significant."

Federal funding such as Small Business Innovation Research grants can be crucial in a startup's overall funding strategy, but Phase 1 SBIR grants prohibit spending funds for equipment, he said. Stafford was able to secure SBA funding that paid for the new equipment.



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