This year saw a renewed focus on the bioscience sector in Alabama – an industry that stretches to nearly every corner of the state. It was identified by local and state economic development groups as an area where the state is poised to grow.

At the Economic Development Association of Alabama Winter Conference in February, Peggy Sammon, Chairman for BioAlabama, said the industry organization was ready to take the lead role in making that growth happen. To kick off their efforts, the group issued an impact study.

The study, released in May, found the industry has a $7.3 billion economic impact on the state while supporting 780 bioscience companies and 48,000 direct and indirect jobs across the state.

 

“Alabama’s bioscience industry is a vital economic engine for our state, creating high-paying jobs and generating important innovations that improve the quality of life for people here at home and all around the world,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “We’re focused on fostering growth in the bioscience sector and collaborating with the state’s research leaders to make that happen.”

Those research leaders include major players in the state – University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), HudsonAlpha, Southern Research, Tuskegee University, Auburn University, Alabama A&M, the University of Alabama, the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the University of South Alabama. Many of whom came together to form Alabama’s high-level delegation at this year’s BIO International Convention in Boston.

The world’s largest biotechnology conference, BIO brings together top bioscience-focused companies along with university officials and major research organizations from more than 70 countries. It’s a networking opportunity that promises hopes for new collaborations and investment partnerships.

Investment in biotech also became a topic of conversation this year, especially among startups. Gaining funds and raising capital is an arduous process for most startups, but in the world of biotech it can be even more challenging. This is due to several factors. One, scientist and innovators spend most of their time in labs not boardrooms. Second, biotech startups are built on emerging technologies, which often come with inherent risks, the kind many investors shy away from.

Alabama companies who saw success this year in raising capital were CIRCULOGENE and Vitruvius Pharma. CIRCULOGENE is a pioneering molecular genetics testing company. They provide advanced genomic analysis of tumor mutations for oncology clinics across the U.S. and parts of Europe and the Middle East. Financing they received from the members of the Alabama Capital Network (CAN) will support the company’s continued growth and research.

The Auburn-based Vitruvius Therapeutics Inc., which makes specialty generic pharmaceuticals received financing of $11.5 million. Another promising startup, Vitruvius’s primary focus is on sterile injectable products.

UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center

Research groups and universities also made strides in receiving funding this year, particularly the University of Alabama at Birmingham. UAB’s Comprehensive Cancer Center recently received a $30 million gift, the largest in UAB’s history, from O’Neal Industries and its shareholders. The funds will be used to recruit additional cancer scientists and clinicians, expand cancer treatment clinical trials at UAB, plant the seed for a UAB/biotech collaboration that could eventually grow into a Birmingham biotechnology park and create a distinctive brand around the cancer center.

In addition, UAB along with Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology received a $1.2M grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute to fund a new summer program, called SURE-GM. The program’s intent is to open the field of genomics to minority students who have been historically underrepresented in this field.

In other investment news, Germany’s Evonik announced in March plans to expand production of biomaterials and launch a Global Competence Center for Medical Devices at its Birmingham facility.

Electrospinning to make bioresorbable meshes for wound healing applications in the Medical Device Competence Center of Evonik. (Evonik)

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey stated the $50 million expansion further positions Birmingham as Evonik’s “second home.” It also positions the Magic City as the center of biomaterials and medical polymers when it comes to medical devices and pharmaceuticals.

“Evonik’s investments in the Birmingham site reflect its commitment to the medical device and drug delivery business as well as the city of Birmingham and its history of world-class medical research and technology,” said Kel Boisvert, Birmingham site manager for Evonik.

Another long-standing biotech leader who has played a pivotal role in the advancement of biotechnology and life sciences in Alabama is Southern Research, who also received attention this year. Their CEO and President Arthur J. Tipton, PH.D. was the recipient of the EDPA’s 2018 Lifetime Achievement in Innovation award in recognition of his notable 30-year career as a scientist and business leader.

While it’s been a headline-grabbing year for Alabama’s biotech industry, getting to this point has been a long journey. A journey that has led Alabama to being ranked among the top 10 states in America in the growth of biotech research. It will be exciting to see the economic impact biotech will have on the state in 2019.