Working with biotechnology startup companies with growing needs for laboratory space, the Austin Technology Incubator is planning to add 60,000 square feet of wet lab space for research and development.

The U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded $247,000 to begin the planning process after a feasibility study performed by the incubator showed a lack of lab space in Austin for small companies. The incubator received a matching $247,000 from community partners. Wet labs have specialized plumbing and ventilation equipment that allow biotechnology and bioscience companies to conduct certain types of research.

The incubator is a nonprofit entity of UT that helps entrepreneurs build or expand their startup companies through the expertise of the incubator’s staff and equipment.

Bioscience director for the incubator, Cindy WalkerPeach, who ran the feasibility study, said assessing how much lab space was needed was the first stage in the process. After the planning process funded by the grant, the incubator will begin fundraising for the new facility. The wet lab facility has an estimated cost of $80 million and a 58-month projected schedule, including a year of fundraising, WalkerPeach said.

“When it comes to startups trying to develop product they need that wet lab space and we don’t have any in Austin really,”

WalkerPeach said. “We have a very tiny amount and real estate developers will develop the space but it’s very expensive, $600-$800 a square foot. That’s something that a small company like a startup can’t afford.”

Brett Newswanger, director of product development at Xeris Pharmaceuticals, said his research requires him to do wet lab work in Georgetown since there are no small-scale wet labs in Austin. Newswanger, a UT alumni, worked at the incubator as an intern and said it could allow UT graduates working on startups an opportunity to continue research in nearby small-scale labs.

“By the time this happens we’ll hopefully be beyond this stage as a bigger company, but it will be great for smaller companies like where we are now that can’t afford to build their own lab space,” Newswanger said. “It would be much easier to do my work without having to drive 30 minutes to do research.”

Janet Walkow, the executive director and chief technology officer of the Drug Dynamics Institute at UT, said the institute has had to turn away companies and entrepreneurs who ask to use their lab space because they are commercial entities. Walkow said the incubator’s wet lab will help alleviate the problem and become an incentive for researchers to create products.

“This will be a great venue to help encourage researchers on campus to keep working toward a commercialized product,” Walkow said. “This gives them a space to further that development.”

Printed on Friday, November 2, 2012 as: Federal grant funds new wet lab spaces

In an effort to bolster new life-science technology companies, the city of Austin is helping UT free up scarce and much-needed laboratory space for local companies to test their ideas.

The 800-square-foot UTech Dorm Room in the College of Pharmacy will launch next week after months of negotiation between UT, the Austin Technology Incubator and the city of Austin, which is footing the bill for the open lab space.

Mark Nathan, chief of staff for Mayor Lee Leffingwell, said critical wet-lab space is nearly impossible to secure in Austin, but the mayor believes the city should support biotechnology companies because they are a critical part of the economy.

To get the venture started, Austin’s economic development fund is pitching $55,000 toward equipment, lab preparation and part of a new lab manager’s salary. But Cindy WalkerPeach, director of the Austin Technology Incubator, said this is just the first step toward providing local ventures with necessary laboratory space.

“The pharmacy space is fairly small and can only accommodate one company at a time, and there are many, many companies that would like to have access to lab space,” WalkerPeach said. “I submitted a grant to start looking at bringing new wet-lab space to Austin — it’s very exciting.”

Researchers typically use wet labs for experiments with chemicals and water. To test the commercial viability of their technology, companies will use the UTech Dorm Room which is named after Michael Dell’s foray into the computer world from his UT dorm room.

Hall Martin, director of the Austin Entrepreneur Network, said because wet labs are so scarce in Austin, many companies outsource research at a high cost because it is more expensive to pay for wet-lab space.

Martin said UT labs are almost always in use, and even if a company can get access to lab space, they run the risk of having to share intellectual property rights with the University.
According to a study by the Center for American Progress, UT ranks low compared to other top universities in sharing intellectual property rights of its researchers’ technologies with entrepreneurs.

But the UTech Dorm Room arrangement allows companies the freedom to do research without the risk of giving up intellectual property.

In similar university-company models, companies have hired faculty to help them do research, said Janet Walkow, director of Drug Dynamics Institute and one of the key instigators of the project. Students will also have the opportunity to work with the companies, such as in marketing, she said.If students and faculty form a company, rather than doing research already funded by a grant, they too can use the lab for commercialization uses, Walkow said.

“While it’s very attractive to [companies], we saw it as a wonderful financial and intellectual benefit for our faculty because it would provide a way for them to collaborate on projects,” she said. “So, it brings money into the University.”