During a Biotech 2003 event panel Wednesday called “Strengthening North Carolina’s Biotech Industry One Region at a Time,” speakers from the Piedmont Triad, Charlotte, and East and West Carolina discussed regional efforts to spread the biotech largesse statewide.

William Wiley, a principal with Madison Keats, a Charlotte life sciences investment banking firm, noted that other biotech clusters formed around financial centers such as Boston and San Francisco. Wiley proposed an initiative to enlist the Charlotte banking community more actively in NC’s biotech development efforts. “I’ll volunteer to organize it,” he said.

But Mark Wdowik, executive director of UNC Charlotte’s Tech Transfer office, told Local Tech Wire the Queen City already has initiatives underway to involve Charlotte’s big banks in biotech. He said both Bank of America and First Union have representatives on the Charlotte Research Institute board and invested in the Academy Fund.

“They are tied into what’s going on. The conversations are occurring,” he said.

Wdowik noted that Charlotte has about 48 biotech, pharmaceutical, medical device and related companies. He said the University has particular expertise in emerging bioinformatics, which is where he expects Charlotte to excel.

East and West

At a later panel, Marti Van Scott, director of the office of technology transfer at East Carolina University, pointed out that East Carolina is at the forefront of telemedicine and robotic heart surgery, among other things. But, she said, “I think the general sense here is that once you go east of I-95 you drop off the face of the earth. There are many creative and innovative people in east Carolina.”

Jim Roberts of Ashville-based AdvantageWest, the Western NC economic development organization, lamented the region’s lack of a major research university. But, he said, it may work out a relationship with East Tennessee University. He said the region’s first meeting of entrepreneurs and investors went very well.

Grants Available

Lots of folks were doing business in the Sheraton’s corridors and the expansive exhibition room throughout the day.

Martin Naley, business development manager for Invitrogen life technologies, a Carlsbad, CA company, made sure the economic development and tech transfer people knew his company had grants for certain biotech start-ups.

Invitrogen offers grants usually of $100,000 for science research tools that “accelerate biological discovery and understanding,” Naley told LTW. “They’re for an inventor who needs a little money to start a company or to use in proof on concept research. Our program gives them that.”

Invitrogen supports research it thinks may lead to tool technologies it may license. It has licensed about 700 such tools. Invitrogen has other means to help start-ups. “We provide fees and royalty revenues for their research tools while they work on therapeutics,” he said.

Areas of interest include amplification, biochemical arrays, bioengineering, cell-based assays, cell culture, lines, and signaling, cloning, enzymes, expression, gene display, informatics, labeling and detection, modeling, protein engineering, purification, sequencing, and more. (www.invitrogen.com/grants).

Merix on the Move

Merix Bioscience of Durham, is wooing an Asian partner for a major deal, said Jeffery Abbey, director of strategic development.

Abbey also told LTW that Merix, which has developed a Duke-based technology to make anti-cancer vaccines, expects to start its first company sponsored Phase I clinical trial this year.

Merix will test its vaccine against renal cell kidney cancer. The company probably won’t start raising money for its C round until after it closes the deal-in-the-works, Abbey said. Merix closed one of the most impressive venture funding rounds last year at $40 million.

He said the company also might open a Canadian office. “There’s government support you if you spend money there,” he said.

Abbey said the biotech conference was upbeat. “You expect that here,” he said, “but I’ve also been hearing the numbers to support it.”

On the rebound?

G. Steven Burrill, chief executive officer of Burrill & Co., a life sciences investment firm with $500 million under management and chairman of the board of Triangle-based Paradigm Genetics, chalked up some of those numbers during his lunch talk following Easley.

After a rather dismal look at the precipitous drops in biotech capitalizations following the Imclone debacle, Burrill noted that sector has been “marginalized.” The sub-billion dollar market caps of public biotech companies do not interest institutional investors and investment banks, he said.

That changed market conditions. Now the buzzword in the industry is “sustainability,” Burrill and others at the event said. Sustainable companies have products and profits and can help support themselves.

Still, Burrill was optimistic and said he expects biotech market capitalization to rise 15 percent this year. “The sector is already beginning to outperform the Dow and the Nasdaq,” he said.