Innovation is a team sport.
While we often credit the discovery of a promising new therapy to a single scientist or research team, turning that discovery into a viable product patients can access requires a vast network of players. There are manufacturing platforms capable of producing new cell and gene therapies, teams to support preclinical and clinical trials, real estate developers that offer cutting-edge laboratory space and experts across a wide range of fields who all contribute to bringing a product to market.
Throughout Montgomery County in Maryland, organizations across this spectrum are partnering to keep new cell and gene therapies on the fast track to commercialization.
“There’s an understanding in bio, more than any other industry perhaps, that it’s not a zero-sum game,” said Montgomery County Councilmember Andrew Friedson, who has advocated for multiple efforts to attract life sciences companies to the county. “There’s not a finite number of resources these businesses are fighting over. What is good for bio is good for Montgomery County, and the better bio does, the more Montgomery County will do bio better.”
Montgomery County’s spirit of partnership
People often think of biotechnology partnerships as licensing deals, where one company develops a product and licenses it to another for manufacturing and marketing. Partnership in the local industry; however, goes much deeper than that, said Brad Stewart, senior vice president of business development for Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation (MCEDC).
“What I think is unique about the area we have here is it’s a very rich, diverse group of companies with a spectacular cross-section of the types of products and services,” Stewart said. “It’s also a very friendly community. It’s one where if you need help, most likely someone knows someone who can help you, and they’re probably very likely to volunteer their time to help you.”
This spirit of partnership is particularly beneficial to very young companies.
“Some of the companies may start with two employees,” Stewart said. “They’ve got to start from nothing and try to figure out how to become a successful company.”
Programs such as the Maryland Tech Council’s venture mentoring services program and the Business Innovation Network incubator at the Germantown Innovation Center help connect startups to partners who help them successfully reach the next stage, he said.
2 life sciences startups reaping the benefits of the county’s connectivity
Two of the three portfolio companies that graduated from the incubator program within the last year were cell therapy companies: Akan Biosciences and Seraxis. The program provides participants with educational, networking and collaboration opportunities, shared resources and access to wet labs and clean rooms.
Seraxis launched in 2013 and is working on a cure for type 1 diabetes. Its novel cell and immune-evasion technologies together reverse diabetes in animal models, and the company is working to advance this therapy to the clinic. It now has 15 employees and a 7,000-square-foot lab on the I-270 Tech Corridor.
Akan, located in Gaithersburg, is developing next-generation stem cell-based therapeutics to treat degenerative diseases and injury. The company has grown from one office and one employee to a team of 16 working in six larger offices and labs.
“The resources of the Germantown Innovation Center and Montgomery College allowed us to set up our own small-scale, FDA-compliant, GMP [Good Manufacturing Practice] manufacturing suite, obtain two IND [Investigational New Drug] applications approved by the FDA and launch multiple national clinical trials with our products,” Akan Bio President and Founder Mukesh Kumar said in an announcement of the graduation.
“Despite several attractive offers to move to other parts of the country, we plan to stay a Montgomery County business.”
Big, established biotech ecosystem
In the public sector, Maryland is home to more federal labs than any other state, including 36 in Montgomery County alone. The National Institutes of Health, which is the world’s largest researcher with $47.5 billion spent annually, is based in the county, as is the world’s largest regulator, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The public sector has helped create a deep talent pool for the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs so important to cell and gene therapy.
“We’re fortunate to have one of the strongest, most educated workforces in the country,” Friedson said.
Thriving manufacturing and trial partnerships
In the private sector, Montgomery County is home to more than 300 life sciences companies, with partners available at every stage of product development to help take new technology from the point of earliest discovery to commercial use in patients. Manufacturing partners are also plentiful, including Lonza, Catalent, MaxCyte, Charles River Labs and Saint Gobain, all of which have operations in the county.
3 keys to a successful life sciences partnership
There are three keys to a successful partnership, says Jeffrey Hung, formerly of Vigene Biosciences, a Charles River Labs company: making sure each partner brings a core competency to the table that the other needs, having a foundation of strong personal relationship and trust, and serving a major need.
“It’s really critical for the partners to identify an unmet medical need, research need or consumer need,” Hung said. “Oftentimes, there is a leading partner who supplies the solution or identifies the need first and then brings in other partners.”
And, as the population continues to age, he said, there is plenty of need. “I can say for sure on the long-term, health care and innovation in the biomedical space will continue to be a leading force for Montgomery County.”
Learn more about Maryland’s Montgomery County, the immunology capital next to the nation’s capital by contacting Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation (MCEDC): firstname.lastname@example.org. Montgomery County is home to NIH, FDA, top talent, partnerships and life sciences success for you.