April 25, 2005
Emtech provides warm nest for biotech firms
BY Michael terrazas
Tucked away on a few thousand square feet of the Briarcliff Campus, just behind the dormant greenhouses of the old Asa Candler mansion, is a modest enterprise that nonetheless represents a significant facet of Emory’s future. Like many of the University’s newly hatched ideas, it resides in a series of modular units, patiently awaiting the day it’s granted a “real” home of its own.
It is Emtech Bio, the biotechnology business incubator launched in cooperation with Georgia Tech in 2000, two years after Emory acquired the former Georgia Mental Health Institute property. Following the model of Tech’s more established Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), Emtech provides laboratory space for bioscience technology startups, offering a research infrastructure very few fledgling companies can afford.
“Companies get a tremendous rental rate that includes things—laboratory equipment, communications services, etc.—for which it’s very difficult to get the money,” said Connie Snipes, Emtech facility manager. “And companies just seem to like it here.”
Five years after its official launch—though its doors opened in July 2000, the center had long been discussed as a goal of the Georgia Research Alliance, of which both Emory and Georgia Tech are part—Emtech is still fairly small, but its handful of companies already have had impact. For instance, Geovax, a spinoff from research performed in the Emory Vaccine Center, is working to develop an AIDS vaccine.
Geovax is one the seven companies currently on the Emtech roster, though three actually occupy space at ATDC. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, ATDC is more than just a model for Emtech; the two are related by administration.
“I’m more hands on at ATDC,” said Emtech CEO Lee Herron, who serves as ATDC general manager for bioscience. Despite his title, Herron credits much of Emtech’s success to Snipes, who is at the site every day (Herron spends his time mostly on the Tech campus). ATDC Associate Director Chris Downing serves as chief operating officer at Emtech.
The two universities also split membership on Emtech’s six-person board of trustees; Emory’s three slots are filled by Michael Johns and Mike Mandl, executive vice presidents for health affairs and finance and administration, respectively; and Lanny Liebeskind, senior associate dean for research in Emory College. Don Giddens, dean of Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering; Bob Thompson, senior vice president for administration and finance; and Charles Liotta, vice president for academic affairs (and older brother of Emory’s Dennis Liotta), are Emtech’s board members from North Avenue.
“EmTech has been a very successful venture,” Johns said. “In fact, it has been so successful that we have created a ‘good problem to have’ by filling the space to capacity, and then some.”
Johns said both Emory and Georgia Tech are reviewing projected needs over the next five or so years to gauge how best to grow Emtech. He said Phase II research space (like that at Emtech) is in relatively short supply in Atlanta, and with biotechnology poised to become one of the more important industries of the 21st century, the incubator’s future looks like a bright one.
To be sure, not all Emtech programs hinge on physical space. In addition to laboratories, it offers business management and public relations expertise to its startups, both those already in residence and those who apply. Herron and Snipes said companies that apply for space are given feedback on their business model, even if they’re not granted a lab.
Also the center just completed the third round of its bio seed grant program, which supplies funds to Emory or Georgia Tech researchers whose projects show realizable commercial promise. Three Emory professors—Hyun Suk Shim, assistant professor in the Winship Cancer Institute; Jonathan Glass, associate professor of neurology; and Mauricio Rojas, assistant of professor of medicine—received one-year grants in this latest round.
But ultimately the success of Emtech as an incubator will be depend on the number and nature of companies it moves “out from the nest.” At the moment, Herron said, two companies—FOB Synthesis and Aderans Research Institute (formerly BioAmide)—are the leading candidates.
“Growing businesses is not something universities are used to doing,” Liebeskind said. “It depends on more than just the goodwill and resources of the institutions; it depends on the environment of the community, how good Atlanta is at bringing companies into the area and helping them grow. Georgia and the Atlanta region have nowhere near reached the potential they have with institutions like Emory and Georgia Tech. It goes beyond those two institutions and has to do with the business climate in the state and having people who want to invest money.”