By Nathan Rubbelke, St. Louis Business Journal – December 30, 2020
When the U.S. Department of Commerce in May announced plans to dole out $1.5 billion in CARES Act Funds to help communities respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, the leadership of BioSTL decided to pursue a “bold” initiative.
“We really wanted to go after something pretty big and wanted to knit together a number of different programs and activities into something bigger and more comprehensive,” said Eric Gulve, executive vice president of BioSTL and president of BioSTL’s investment arm, BioGenerator.
The result is BioSTL’s new “Center for National Pandemic Resiliency in Biosciences.” On Dec. 23, the Department of Commerce awarded BioSTL with a $2.96 million grant, made through the Economic Development Administration, to establish the new center. BioSTL will provide $741,030 in matching funds to stand up the initiative.
The new center aims to advance research and innovation on preventing and mitigating pandemics. BioSTL plans to use its own programming and tap into the research strengths of local universities and other organizations to work toward commercializing technology that can be used to forecast future pandemics and alleviate impacts. It’s a model that BioSTL executives say could lead to St. Louis becoming a hub for pandemic-focused technologies and products.
“As we build a platform to do that better than anyone else, we would hope that we would also become a magnet for innovators around the Midwest and around the country who have ideas that fit within this category of resiliency and would bring their startups to grow them in St. Louis,” said Donn Rubin, president and CEO of BioSTL.
Officials expect the Center for National Pandemic Resiliency in Biosciences to have a significant economic impact, projecting it will create 125 jobs and $20 million in private investment.
With the grant funding secured, BioSTL is now turning its attention building out the new initiative. Instrumental to that process will include hiring a director to oversee the center’s operations. BioSTL is seeking someone with a deep knowledge of pandemics and a network of expertise around the topic.
“A lot of the strategy will flow from that (hire),” said Gulve. “There are a lot of different directions in which we could go in terms of funding and developing ways to deal with a future pandemic.”
In addition to the director, BioSTL also plans to add business development, community health entrepreneurship and workforce leads to staff the initiative.
Potential technologies that could be commercialized through the new center include drug treatments, vaccines, research tools and new digital health technology that can be used during a pandemic. The center aims to capitalize on St. Louis' strengths, such as research tools, and develop relevant innovations.
“We really need to sharpen our strategy so we’re not working on things that perhaps by the time they are ready to go are almost too late to address a specific pandemic. There’s a lot of strategic thought that needs to go into how we’re going to deal with identifying and prioritizing technology that we’d like to work on,” Gulve said.
To help entrepreneurs test new products and technologies, the new center will explore creating a new “pilot scale bio-manufacturing" facility in St. Louis. It will also work to provide lab and office space to companies that are expanding and have outgrown local incubator space.
Moving forward, BioSTL expects its new pandemic-focused center to play a role in both launching new companies in St. Louis and recruiting companies here. Altogether, BioSTL executives said they believe the new center is positioned to help validate technologies that could be used to prevent or mitigate the next pandemic.
“It’s not about necessarily solving today’s pandemic, but we’ve learned a lot over the last 10 months about what is needed,” Rubin said.