Long Island's Biotech Industry

The Promises and Perils of The Innovation Economy

Introduction

Long Island, New York is home to a burgeoning biotechnology industry. Researchers from institutions like Stony Brook University, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research develop and commercialize their innovations. But biotech startups may take decades to become profitable, and government agencies take on the cost of providing grants and incubator space for the startups. These stories take a look at the people who are at the forefront of the biotech revolution.

Codagenix Moves Closer to Creating More Effective Flu Vaccine

J. Robert Coleman, Ph.D. Photo from Farmingdale State College Communications

Feb. 17, 2016

A vaccine development company based in Stony Brook will move into human clinical trials for a new type of influenza vaccine by the end of 2016.

The company, Codagenix, will wrap up the manufacturing phase of the vaccine’s development around June and begin trials in the fall in Australia, according to the company’s chief operating officer, J. Robert Coleman.

Codagenix uses a software-based platform called Synthetic Attenuated Virus Engineering, or SAVE, to redesign the genetic code of a target virus, thus creating a weakened form of the virus that can be used in a vaccine.

Steffen Mueller, the president and chief scientific officer of Codagenix, compared the “re-coding” of a virus’s genetic code to speaking different dialects of a language. SAVE uses different sequences of molecules in genetic material called codons to synthesize the same amino acids that make up the proteins in a virus.

“We’re using different spellings to write the same words and the same story,” Mueller said. “We do this to create the most inefficient version of the virus.”

Mueller explained that current commercial flu vaccines are ineffective because they use pieces of dead viruses instead of weakened live viruses.

“Ninety percent of shots are not viruses but pieces of virus that are killed, processed and purified,” Mueller said. “They’re just these dead pieces of protein, so you have to make a lot in order to get an immune response.”

Codagenix can solve this problem by using the SAVE platform to create weakened live viruses for new vaccines.

“Our vaccines will require a very low dose,” Mueller said. “They’ll be much cheaper and much more efficient.”

The pipeline of vaccines that Codagenix is developing includes influenza, respiratory syncytial virus and dengue.

Coleman, an assistant professor at Farmingdale State College, created SAVE with Mueller, a former research assistant professor at Stony Brook University, and Eckard Wimmer, Codagenix’s senior scientific advisor and a Stony Brook distinguished professor, while Coleman was a Ph.D. candidate at Stony Brook.

“We kind of thought someone else would take the technology and start a company,” Coleman said. “I left to get my M.B.A. and do my postdoc, but no one else came along, so we decided to just do it ourselves.”

Codagenix is located in the Long Island High Technology Incubator on the Stony Brook campus. But the company is moving to Broad Hollow Bioscience Park, which is located in a tax-free area sponsored by Farmingdale State College under the START-UP NY program. Codagenix will complete the move by the end of February, Coleman said.

The office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Dec. 10 that $2.25 million in funding had been awarded to a consortium of Codagenix, Farmingdale State College and Nassau Community College. The money will be used to create internships and jobs for Farmingdale students at Codagenix, Coleman said.

Greg Blyskal, the executive director of the Broad Hollow Bioscience Park, said that biotechnology startups don’t make profits, so state institutions like Farmingdale State College and Stony Brook University create incubators to house the companies.

“The state puts these buildings up and takes the risk while the businesses start building toward success,” Blyskal said. “It’s sort of a Catch-22 because the businesses need space make profits, but real estate developers won’t build them space until they can make a profit.”

Making vaccines is not an inexpensive business. Human clinical trials can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, Mueller said. The manufacturing of the flu vaccine to be used for Codagenix’s clinical trials alone cost about $500,000, Coleman said.

But Codagenix has been able to secure some of the funds it needs. The company announced on June 12 that Topspin Fund, a Roslyn-based venture firm, has invested $2 million in Codagenix. The company has also been awarded $1.9 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health.

The company is looking into adding new viruses to its development pipeline, including Zika and chikungunya, two mosquito-borne viruses that have had recent international outbreaks, Mueller said.

Codagenix also develops vaccines for livestock, which are cheaper to produce and require less time to bring to market than human vaccines, Coleman said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded Codagenix $100,000 in June to develop a vaccine for foot and mouth disease, which affects cloven-hoofed animals.

Both Coleman and Mueller said that Codagenix is an example of the potential of companies that are spun off of State University of New York schools like Stony Brook.

“SUNY technology, SUNY-educated founders. We’re living the dream of what SUNY can do,” Coleman said.

Ninth Annual Innovation Boot Camp Kicks Off This Week

Feb. 28, 2016

The ninth annual Long Island Innovation Boot Camp and Pre-Seed Workshop will start on March 2, and participating researchers in the fields of biotechnology, energy and information technology will see if they can build businesses around their technologies.

After a welcome reception at the Garden City Hotel, the boot camp will continue with full-day workshops on March 3 and March 10 at Long Island High Technology Incubator on Stony Brook University’s campus.

“The purpose of the boot camp is two-fold,” said David Hamilton, the executive director of Stony Brook’s Clean Energy Business Incubator Program and an organizer of this year’s boot camp. “First, over two-and-half days, we want to see the capability of these technologies to be commercialized. And second, we want to see if the researcher really wants to be an entrepreneur.”

The boot camp has put together teams that are assigned technologies created by researchers from Stony Brook University, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research and private enterprises. Members of each team will work together to create a plan to commercialize their team’s assigned technology.

The teams include the researchers (or “idea champions,” as Hamilton called them), experienced business executives from across Long Island, MBA candidates from Stony Brook University’s College of Business and patent attorneys from the Syosset-based law firm Hoffmann & Baron LLP.

Hamilton said the teams will do some initial work on their business plans at the first workshop, use the rest of the week to clean up their ideas and do research on their markets, and make 15-minute presentations in front of a panel of business experts at the end of the second workshop.

“The boot camp is a lot of work, and it’s a little scary,” Hamilton said. “But it’s perfectly acceptable for the researcher to decide that they don’t want to go into business.”

Research Institutions on Long Island

Among the technologies to be represented at the boot camp is the “Neural Tourniquet” developed by the Feinstein Institute, the research division of the Northwell Health hospital system. The “tourniquet” is a device that stimulates the vagus nerve leading to the spleen so that the body produces more blood platelets, reducing bleeding time for injuries.

“This is an opportunity to help biotech enter the marketplace,” said Christopher Czura, the Feinstein Institute’s vice president of scientific affairs and the chief scientific officer for Sanguistat, a startup company that will license the “Neural Tourniquet” technology. “My goal is to see what we’re up against.”

Another researcher that has signed up for the boot camp is Judy Wieber, a former science librarian for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. She is the developer of the DNA Safe Deposit Box, a repository for storing large amounts of genetic data.

“I’d like to bounce ideas off of the advisers on the team, hammer out some details and create a pitch so hopefully investors will see and fund the idea so we can get a company going,” Wieber said.

Not all of the technologies coming to the boot camp are brand-new. Kantian Sciences Corp., a Smithtown-based company that was founded in March 2015, already sells its topical skin care technology in the form of a two-part acne solution.

“We’re looking to get feedback on our presentation and to help our business stay active in the entrepreneurial community,” said Jon Klein, the president and co-founder of Kantian. “We’d like to show students what it’s like to take an idea and turn it into a full-fledged business.”

Stony Brook University is just one of several hosts of Pre-Seed Workshops held throughout the state. Managed by the Rochester-based company Neworks, the Pre-Seed Workshops take place several times a year in locations across New York, Indiana and Switzerland.

Hamilton said Stony Brook’s workshops will be held the Long Island High Technology Incubator to show participants where their startups can be housed.

“We’re about 70,000 square feet, and we have about 25 to 30 tenants,” said Hamilton, who works at the incubator. “I want these researchers to see where they can be a year from now.”

Hamilton said that this is his fourth year as an organizer of the boot camp, and he has seen several researchers go forward with their plans to create new companies. However, it takes several years for the firms to create profits.

“These companies are prenatal,” Hamilton said. “They’re still moving forward.”

Clinton Rubin, The Virgil To The Biotech Industry’s Dante

Clinton Rubin, Ph.D. Photo from Stony Brook University Office of Media Relations.

March 30, 2016

Clinton Rubin wears many hats: scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, academic, mentor. And now Rubin, the director of Stony Brook University’s Center for Biotechnology, is the latest inductee of the Long Island Technology Hall of Fame for his contributions to the biotechnology industry in New York.

Rubin leads the center in supporting the development of biomedical products and companies in New York.

“Biotech has a very rich history here. Cold Spring Harbor and Brookhaven and Stony Brook are real pioneers in the very broad areas of biotechnology, bioengineering, and life sciences,” Rubin said. “And to be recognized amongst that group is certainly very, very nice, but it also sort of registers that the discipline has a real place here.”

The center is one of the 15 Centers for Advanced Technology funded by the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation, formerly known as the Office of Science, Technology and Academic Research, or NYSTAR. Rubin has been the director of the Center for Biotechnology since 1997.

Under Rubin’s leadership, the Center of Biotechnology was awarded a three-year, $3 million grant by the National Institutes of Health in April last year to establish the Long Island Bioscience Hub, a collaboration of Stony Brook University, Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory that is designed to help move biomedical discoveries from the three institutions into the marketplace.

Rubin compared his roles as researcher and biotechnology advocate to a person’s genotype (or genetic makeup) and phenotype (or the way a genotype is expressed in physical characteristics), respectively.

“I’m a basic researcher by my genotype, but a lot of my phenotype comes out in that I’m very interested in translating discoveries into the commercial sector,” he said, “because the reality of biotech is even though there are all of these glorious researchers on Long Island doing basic science, it will ultimately never improve the health care sector or medicine unless you get industry involved.”

In September, NYSTAR supported the renewal of the Center for Biotechnology with a 10-year, $10 million award.

Rubin said his most important responsibility as director of the center is to convince senior administrators of the university of the center’s importance to the university’s academic mission and to the economic development of the region.

“A lot of my job is making sure our president or our provost or our deans or our vice president of economic development see us as a program of relevance not only to the faculty but to the community,” he said.

In order to do that, he must be “irascible, tenacious, protected by Kevlar, unforgiving, stubborn, that sort of thing.”

“I think there are positive synonyms to those words, but they can’t come to mind,” he added.

Rubin has experience commercializing his own discoveries. The Port Jefferson resident is a co-founder and chief scientific officer of Marodyne Medical, a Florida-based company that uses vibration therapy to aid bone recovery in people with musculoskeletal conditions. The company’s name is a portmanteau of “marrow,” the tissue inside of bones, and “dyne,” a small unit of force.

Marodyne’s vibration technology is sold in the form of a device called LivMD, which stands for low intensity vibration. Patients stand on the device, which sends vibrations through their bodies. The vibrations put low-level stress on the bones, which respond by growing new bone tissue and increasing bone density.

From his experience as an entrepreneur, Rubin sees one of the most significant obstacles that researchers face in the biotechnology industry is their lack of knowledge about the business world. He compared researchers’ need for business experts to Dante’s reliance in his guide Virgil in the epic poem “The Inferno.”

“So no matter how smart Dante or a faculty member is, the trip is much more productive or not a as catastrophic if there is a mentor,” Rubin said.

Danielle Frechette, a fifth-year Ph.D. student at Stony Brook University who works in Rubin’s Musculoskeletal Research Laboratory, said she will look for jobs in biotechnology startups after she graduates, and it’s helpful to have a commercialization expert like Rubin as a mentor.

“Clint is a great role model in that sense because he has like 30 patents, I think,” she said. “He’s really taken the technology and gone to town.”

Rubin has served as the founding chair of the Stony Brook University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering since 2000 and the director of the Musculoskeletal Research Laboratory since 1987.

Rubin spoke highly of 400 undergraduates and 100 graduate students in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

“They’re just the best students on campus,” he said. “They’re bright, inquisitive, motivated.”

His lab’s research focuses on understanding how different stimuli affect the health and growth of bodily tissues like bone, muscle and fat.

“Whenever I go into a meeting with him, he’s always able to lead me to these new ways of thinking about my data and my research,” said Divya Krishnamoorthy, a fifth-year Ph.D. student who works in Rubin’s lab. “He really helps me to think outside of the box.”

Rubin’s students agree that while he oversees the progress of their research and data gathering, he is not micromanager.

“He sort of likes for us to figure things out ourselves,” said Tee Pamon, another fifth-year Ph.D. student in the lab. “I was interested in looking at the bone beneath the cartilage within the joint, and he sort of let me run wild with that without controlling me too much. He does give his opinion when he thinks something doesn’t make sense. He’ll let us know.”

Rubin has been teaching at Stony Brook since 1987, but he began his teaching career as an assistant professor of anatomy and cell biology at Tufts University’s School of Medicine in 1984, “right before there was electricity,” he joked.

Of teaching, he said: “It’s an expected element of any academic, and there are academics who think of it as a chore or an obligation, and there are those who think of it as an opportunity.”

Rubin’s own education included receiving his bachelor’s degree in physiology from Harvard University in 1977 and his doctorate in anatomy from the University of Bristol in England in 1983.

He has amassed a plethora of momentos from over 30 years of teaching. The walls of his office are covered with plaques from his many recognitions, replicas of Milton Avery paintings, and various “tchotchkes” from world travels. On the wall opposite his desk is a calendar with photos of his wife, Jennifer, and his son, Jasper.

Jasper is a sophomore with an undeclared major at Emory University. His father said he believes Jasper will study biology, but it’s good that he’s trying to decide what he wants to do with his life.

“I sometimes worry when we have high schools students working in our lab who know they want to be heart surgeons or something. It’s terrifying to me that they’re so focused on one thing,” Rubin said. “I think he’s exploring different things, and I hope a lot of students do that.”

About

This project was produced by Arielle Martinez for courses in Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism during the Spring 2016 semester. The stories were written for the course JRN 340, and the website was created for the course JRN 385.

Image credits:

Long Island Landsat Mosaic” by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is in the public domain.
SUNY Medical Center” by Wusel007 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Syringe and Vaccine” by NIAID is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory” by AdmOxalate is licensed under CC BY 3.0.
Aerial View of Brookhaven National Laboratory” by the U.S. Department of Energy is in the public domain.