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    COVID-19 Drives Growth In Biotech Investment


    Many in Birmingham believe the pandemic – while causing significant difficulties for many sectors – has created a significant opportunity for Birmingham to double down on its efforts to grow the local biotechnology, life sciences and precision medicine fields. Photo / BOB FARLEY
    For years, local leaders have called for a greater investment in biotech and life sciences. With Covid-19 disrupting the economy, timing is now of the essence. Many experts believe the pandemic – while causing significant difficulties for many sectors – has created a significant opportunity for investors to double down on its efforts to grow the local biotechnology, life sciences and precision medicine fields.
    In many ways, Covid-19 has put the spotlight on the pharmaceutical companies. Infectious disease physicians and researchers at the University of Alabama have been a ubiquitous presence on national TV for months. Birmingham companies like digital health coaching firm Pack Health have caught the eyes of major companies and grown their businesses, despite the pandemic’s challenges.
    Startup assets like Alabama Launchpad have pivoted their models to tackle hurdles created by the pandemic. 

    Biotech firms like BioGX and TriAltus Biosciences have found opportunities aiding in the fight against Covid-19. And Birmingham’s research titans, UAB and Southern Research, have played multiple roles in the battle, from the hunt for a vaccine to clinical trials. UAB also was previously involved in the development of remdesivir, which has emerged as a key treatment for Covid-19 and gained national attention for Birmingham in the process. 

    Many believe the pandemic – while causing significant difficulties for many sectors – has created a significant opportunity for people to double up on its efforts to grow the local biotechnology, life sciences and precision medicine fields. In some ways, given the disruption of the economy and local job market, it actually might be more of a high-stakes need than a simple growth opportunity.  
    The idea of making the city a hub for those industries isn’t new. With assets like UAB and Southern Research, economic development leaders have been calling for an increased focus on those areas for years.

    But with the pandemic potentially creating new opportunities for research funding and given a number of Birmingham entities are already playing pivotal roles with pending projects, many believe the time is right for a more intense push. Josh Carpenter, director of innovation and economic opportunity for the city of Birmingham, said early data shows a number of jobs in many sectors won’t return after the pandemic. 

    “There is reason for us to believe Covid-19 accelerated trends we were already seeing through tech displacement. Those jobs won’t be returning,” he said, noting that office administration jobs and similar functions are in danger.  Health care and life sciences are fields that, while not immune to the crisis, will present some growth opportunities in the short term. That’s one reason why he believes the timing is right for an increased focus on life sciences, biotechnology and related fields. 

    If the Magic City is able to leverage its existing assets, opportunities resulting from Covid-19 and the elevated profile Birmingham has gained during the crisis, Carpenter said there are opportunities to identify affected employees and redeploy that talent in growth fields like biotechnology and life sciences. He pointed to local companies like Pack Health, which are positioned to benefit as large companies and insurers learn lessons from the pandemic and shift their focus to value-based care and addressing health disparities and chronic conditions. 

    Between its innovation assets, its demographics and its existing base of companies and researchers, Carpenter said Birmingham is ideally suited to benefit from that shift. The big question is how to maximize that potential in terms of creating new jobs.“I think we have to rally around the strengths of our community and have an honest, candid conversation about who we want to be,” he said.  

    With the pandemic putting the spotlight on health disparities and chronic conditions, Carpenter said there will likely be opportunities for economies that have accumulated expertise in those fields.
    “We have an opportunity to do something really powerful in precision population health – this intersection between data science and precision medicine with standard population health, and the reason is because of the confluence of research and expertise at UAB,” Carpenter said.

    Carpenter said it will likely take a commitment to cross-sectoral leadership that would transcend UAB and local hospitals. He said it would take a strategic focus from the corporate community and finding innovative ways to work together on things like patent production, noting there are some innovative governance models at places like MIT that showcase ways public institutions can collaborate on commercialization. 

    Carpenter said the city also must refine its workforce strategies to align with the reality that biotech and life sciences are likely to be a significant driver for the region moving forward. He said Birmingham isn’t keeping as many biomedical engineering graduates in town as needed. He said there are cases where the region isn’t skilling people in the right domains, so there’s a misalignment – a challenge highlighted by the Building (It) Together report.

    He said there is a need to be strategic and intentional to identify pathways for growth and mobility for individuals in the life sciences and biotech space and also align education and training efforts. 
    “(Prospective employees) need to be able to see potential to grow in those careers,” Carpenter said. 
    Sonia Robinson, executive director of BIO Alabama, said the pandemic has illustrated the strengths and weaknesses of Alabama’s biosciences world. 

    “The pandemic has elevated the importance of science to where you can talk both to the bioscience community in Alabama and beyond, and people are going to say, ‘Yes, we’re going to science our way through this.’ We’re leaning heavily on our scientific researchers and business leaders across the state and beyond to help us figure out the best path forward,” she said. Robinson said that is shining a spotlight on the work researchers are doing and the stakes of that research, which aids in elevating the industry. 

    BIO Alabama has been focused on producing a strategic roadmap and industry survey to determine where the industry should go. Three focus areas include workforce development, business attraction and retention, and startups and technology transfers. But, historically, industry leaders have called for more tangible support for the biotechnology and life sciences industries from elected officials.
    There is hope the current situation and the role researchers are playing in fighting the pandemic could make those efforts more fruitful in the years to come.

    One of Robinson’s goals is to keep the momentum and energy surrounding Alabama’s biotechnology world going once the pandemic passes. But there are some signs that local industry advocates could soon see some big victories. The University of Alabama System Board of Trustees recently advanced a plan for a new genomics facility at UAB that system leaders have said could be a game-changer for the school and for Birmingham’s biotech scene. 

    The UA System has secured commitments from the city of Birmingham and Jefferson County on the $75 million project and a request has been sent to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey for approval. 
    UA System documents show the project will allow for recruitment of about 50 new principal investigators specializing in genomics and precision medicine in addition to 350 new research and health care-related jobs. It is also expected to generate $35 million to $55 million in additional research funding from NIH and other sources.

    It would elevate UAB’s heightened focus on genomic medicine – an area school leaders believe UAB could be a global leader in – and could significantly aid ongoing efforts to commercialize research and create spinoff companies.“(With this project, UAB) can attract a bigger team and really be poised to be a national leader and a world leader in this (space). It would be a great benefit to the state because it would allow us to have another world-class facility at UAB to treat our citizens that very few other states have,” said UA System Chancellor Finis St. John IV, in a prior interview.

    Carpenter said research and development initiatives often aren’t viewed in the same light as an economic development project. “We have to start seeing these investments as economic opportunities, not just as an expansion of the UAB research enterprise,” he said. “The UAB genomics building project holds the power to demonstrate nationwide that Birmingham is putting a flag in the ground when it comes to the intersection of precision health and data science.”

    Kathy Nugent, executive director of UAB’s Bill L. Harbert Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, said Birmingham had a lot of momentum toward building a robust biotechnology sector prior to the pandemic.  She said the city was becoming more widely recognized for its innovation culture. The launch of initiatives like The Switch were adding to that energy and laying the groundwork for growth

    “There’s just a real meeting of the minds in alignment across all these different sectors that have come together to, as one, push Birmingham forward,” she said.  She said the past year was one of the most successful for UAB, as the school posted another stellar year on the research funding front.  
    While Covid-19 has created some opportunities to highlight Birmingham’s innovation sector and the research at UAB, Nugent noted that it has also posed some challenges.

    Nugent said companies that are more focused on clinical trials for diseases like cancer have seen a drop in enrollment during the pandemic, although she said that will likely change as hospitals return to their normal operating procedures. She also noted that much of the groundwork of those trials has continued, even with reduced patient volumes. But even outside of Covid-19, some Birmingham biotech firms have seen growth during the pandemic. 

    One of those is DiscoveryBioMed Inc., which launched two new business units during the outbreak and secured a $1.7 million grant while collaborating with the Philadelphia-based Monell Chemical Senses Center on a project to find bitter taste blockers to improve medication compliance. But DiscoveryBioMed CEO Erik Schwiebert said he knows uncertain economies can pose challenges for biotech firms. During the Great Recession, he saw investments in biotech and research take a dive. He said having multiple revenue streams, like DiscoveryBioMed does, is important during these times. 

    And, as the federal government and others across the world look to prevent the next Covid-19, many believe Birmingham is well positioned to capitalize on those efforts by reeling in new research dollars and advancing efforts to prevent future pandemics.“The old adage is out of adversity comes opportunity,” Schwiebert said. “I think there is a unique opportunity for both the life sciences and biotechnology sectors in Birmingham and in Huntsville and elsewhere to work with a place like UAB that has deep expertise in infectious diseases.”  

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