UAMS Incubator Looks to Next Generation of Businesses


Last year, a Wall Street Journal story detailed DuPont Co.'s investment in biotechnology involving crops and bioengineering. The story focused on such futuristic developments as fat-free pork raised on genetically engineered corn and bread enriched with cancer-fighting compounds.

William F. Kirk, DuPont's senior vice president, was quoted as saying, "The next Silicon Valley is plant biotechnology."

That idea excites Jerry Damerow, the associated director for business development at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' incubator business program in the Biomedical Biotechnological Center.

"Arkansas is well-positioned for that," says Damerow, noting the agricultural research now being done throughout the University of Arkansas System.

"I think we have an opportunity here," he says. "What we have on the medical campus is an economic engine in early development. We're looking long-term, but now is the time to put the building blocks in place."

It was such ideas as bioengineering and the companies that can make this once-only-dreamed-about technology work that spurred the development of the center's business incubator, called Arkansas BioVentures. The incubator allows UAMS faculty to develop technology under a nurturing business environment.

More than two years ago, the Biomedical Biotechnological Center, under Dr. Timothy O'Brien's direction, put its incubator into action. The Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health was the first company to join up with the incubator.

Two other firms, ContourMed Inc. and IRV Inc., are part of the incubator. ContourMed, led by Dr. L. Daniel Eaton, designs, manufactures and markets custom-fitting, lightweight, alloplastic prosthetic and orthotic devices. They were designed to replicate portions of the anatomy of the human head, neck and breast region following disease and trauma, allowing for comfortable and natural-looking external prosthetic devices.

IRV stands for Infrared Veniscope, a device that allows for specialized blood vessel viewing in both clinical and hospitals settings. Dr. Milton Waner leads IRV Inc.

Three other companies are expected to start up this year, including Safe Foods Corp., whose researchers are using chemicals to improve the microbiological safety of perishable food products. The formula has been proven to be very effective against several major food pathogens, including campylobacter, salmonella, listeria and e-coli, UAMS officials says.

COGS Diagnostics LLC, another pending company, will develop and manufacture new test systems for the diagnosis of breast and ovarian cancer. Panacea Pharmaceuticals LLC will offer novel treatment and continuing research for specific food allergy disorders.

Along with the new companies, the incubator has 12 licensed patent agreements with UAMS faculty.

Many of these companies and the patents, Damerow says, could develop into larger biotechnological manufacturers and eventually evolve into public companies. He says annual revenue in the $50 million range are not beyond the reach of these companies in the next decade.

The model for UAMS' incubator is found at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, which has enjoyed great success in developing biotechnology-related businesses and sending them out on their own.

"They are years ahead of us in economic development, but the growth pattern there is similar to UAMS," says Alice Rumph Smith, associate director of the Biomedical Biotechnological Center. "It's a great model for us and a great success story."

Raising funds for the incubator cis a major project. Recently, the Southwestern Bell Foundation awarded the incubator $200,000 to provide communications systems in the new building.

The proposed incubator facility would be built next to the research center on Elm Street. A $10 million first phase would build two floors and connect to the research center. A second phase would cost another $10 million, and the facility would eventually mirror the four-story research center, which opened in 1993.

Also, the incubator and Arkansas Capital Corp. developed a strategic alliance this year for helping the new start-ups arrange financing. Private-sector involvement continues to be a priority for the incubator, Damerow says.

Damerow and others don't want the next Silicon Valley to end up somewhere else when the opportunities for biotechnological research are in Arkansas' back yard.

"This is the future, and we've got to create it," he said. "We have resources in the state to do it if we get people on board pulling in the same direction."