Talk about setting the bar high.
Joseph Jackson, founder of Carlsbad’s Bio, Tech and Beyond incubator doesn’t just want to facilitate the growth of local life science companies and opportunities: He wants to revolutionize the way the life science industry functions.
“What we’re attempting to do is come up with another model for science, so it’s not just organized around the one academic principle investigator who has his own lab and who constantly has to use grants -- they have to spend probably 70 percent of their time now just pushing for the next grant,” Jackson said. “That system has got a lot of people in academia frustrated because it’s sort of this medieval type of apprenticeship. On the other hand, your only option is to go try to get a position with a large company in town, but a lot of those jobs are going away.
“So we’re trying to chart this course and set up a space where, conceivably, you can come in … to do kind of a proof-of-concept study.”
Bio, Tech and Beyond’s 6,000-square-foot space at 2351 Faraday Ave. was leased to the incubator for $1 a year for five years beginning February 2013 by the city of Carlsbad.
A year into the “experiment,” as Jackson calls it, there are a lot of successes to point to, though that can be difficult to define with such a new concept.
Jackson said there are about a dozen such biotech incubators in the world, but this one is particularly unique because it isn’t tied to an academic institution or parent company for funding, which is both a challenge and a blessing.
Money is tight -- for the institution and the scientists it houses -- but bureaucracy is at a minimum.
There are several different arms to the incubator, which is still evolving as Jackson, who works full time on this initiative, and co-founder Kevin Lustig of Assay Depot, figure out what works.
One of the arms is to create a lab space for retired scientists, students, those forced out or wanting an out from industry, or anyone with a bio background to carry out proof-of-concept studies cheaply.
Bio, Tech and Beyond has a total of 14 benches, six of which are currently being rented by local startup companies. He said he expects five more will be taken by the summer, with three kept in reserve for contract work or shared projects. The benches go for $600 a month, with the first three months up front and then on a month-to-month basis thereafter, he said.
That $600 covers the cost of the bench space itself, and use of the incubator’s basic equipment and machinery, as well as the tissue culture room and necessities such as liquid nitrogen.
The goal is for these scientists to spend a few months working on the critical validation component of a new drug in order to be able to take the concept to investors or try to be acquired.
The other branch of the incubator that has shown the most promise to date is developing molecular tool kits that can be sold to larger companies.
A lot of other types of work are done under this roof as well, including contract work for any of the hundreds of research organizations in town, technical writers using the shared office space, and as a potential shared infrastructure location for a chemical compound library used for drug candidate screening.
Another component of the incubator is the Carlsbad Center for Translational Medicine, which will bring in several big-name scientists from local hotbeds such as the Scripps Research Institute, Salk Institute, Sanford-Burnham Medical Center and the University of California at San Diego, to find partnering opportunities and serve as a mentor for current or former students who need space, to come to the lab and work on these projects there.
Interest in these different facets hasn’t been a problem, as Jackson said he is always getting calls and emails about using the space.
The key now is identifying revenue streams from these drug discovery, contract project and tool kit workflows. Bio, Tech and Beyond is also trying to develop ties with disease foundations and charitable organizations such as the Gates Foundation, as well as establish a business-to-business component to keep the project financially afloat.
Aside from the $1 a year lease, it receives no financial support from the city, though it does assist with sourcing volunteers, promotion and networking.
“From our perspective, the incubator is doing great,” said Christina Vincent, economic development manager for the city of Carlsbad. “So while the lease was signed in February, they spent the first six months doing tenant improvements on the building, so it’s been up and running with memberships and gaining speed for six months. In that timeframe, they’ve been able to get great support from local life science companies here in Carlsbad as well as get companies actually working in the space.”
She said the lease contains provisions for an annual review of the incubator’s progress on certain benchmarks including jobs created, membership and interaction with the local community.
As for an extension on the essentially gifted space, Vincent said that would depend on the results posted closer to the five-year mark.
Jackson said funding and hitting on a sustainable revenue stream have been the main challenges in the experiment’s relatively short existence, with the people involved and support from the community proving unexpectedly bright spots.
“That’s where I’ve been really pleasantly surprised -- by the fact that there was this rich network of life science professionals and facilities people in the region and they’ve done this for 15 to 20 years and knew exactly what needed to be done to get the minimum setup,” he said. “They found stuff for us as buildings were being stripped or decommissioned, and we were able to pull that stuff down here so we didn’t have to spend $5,000 on XYZ. It adds up quickly.”
As Vincent mentioned, Jackson and a crew of volunteers did most of the remodeling of the building themselves, turning what was the Farmers Insurance site into workable lab space in a span of six months. When they weren’t able to actually do the work themselves, Jackson said they were able to use connections to get an extreme discount, adding to the whole incubator’s “extremely capital efficient” nature.
Though the experiment in revolutionizing an industry plagued by a lack of funding and extremely long concept-to-market times is far from over, Jackson said, he has high hopes, in part stoked by a downturn in the industry itself.
“The model is evolving -- it’s not your traditional incubator,” he said. “We really are trying to be more of a community and try to be more active in developing business opportunities for people in the community. And of course we’re trying to find the sustainable way to do science at lower costs, because I think increasingly, everyone is looking to these alternative models because they see the trajectory and the dire situation that they’re facing at their current institutes.”
2351 Faraday Ave.
Carlsbad, CA 92008