By Nathan Rubbelke, St. Louis Business Journal | September 18, 2021
For BioGenerator’s Harry Arader, the realization that St. Louis had the opportunity to become a hub for defense medicine didn’t come with a lightbulb moment. It was more of a gradual dawning, he says.
The success of St. Louis-born startup Kalocyte first piqued his interest. The company snagged millions in federal funding to advance its artificial red blood cell technology that could be used by the military. Arader, who leads various entrepreneurship programs for BioGenerator, the investment arm of biotech booster BioSTL, figured more startups had the same potential. Yet he wasn't sure how to tap into that well of potential.
Now, that plan is set.
BioSTL said Wednesday it is launching a new Center for Defense Medicine through a $1.5 million grant awarded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The center will use BioGenerator's commercialization programs to focus on helping St. Louis startups develop and advance products and technology that can be used by the U.S. military and its warfighters.
The Center for Defense Medicine will expand upon BioGenerator's existing business development programs, specifically a Grant to Business program that has lured more than $75 million in funding to local companies. The program has snagged much of its grant funding so far from National Institutes of Health, but sees grant opportunities from the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.
A focus of BioSTL’s new center will involve connecting entrepreneurs and federal officials, which Arader said will be key to winning grants.
“The NIH is a data-driven, science-driven peer review process. Basically, if you’ve got strong science that is going to create commercial value, you’re going to get a grant if you’ve reasonably got your act together,” said Arader, who leads BioGenerator’s grants program. "The Department of Defense, by way of contrast, it’s more similar to the industrial model. They’re certainly going to do judgment of your science and your commercial model, but there’s much more of a socialization aspect. It’s necessary to crack the system and get to know the people to a much greater extent than is necessary within the NIH.”
For St. Louis startups focused on defense medicine, the federal government can be more than just a crucial funder.
“They also want to be the first customers, which basically means they will buy your product before it’s really ready for primetime, if they are interested in working the bugs out so that it can serve a military population,” Arader said.
The Center for Defense Medicine will be a nonprofit entity and focus on boosting early stage technologies, Arader said. BioGenerator also plans to launch a for-profit company, Echelon MedTech, to advance more developed products.
The center’s creation came together after BioSTL worked with defense industry experts and local universities to identify St. Louis research strengths and strategized on how it can advance defense medicine technologies in the region.
“We found to our surprise and excitement that there were about a half a dozen technologies that were far enough along that the military would generally be interested in them and interested in funding them,” Arader said.
St. Louis isn’t the only region targeting defense medicine, with BioSTL pointing to Boston/Cambridge, San Antonio and Pittsburgh as top areas in the field. In addition, BioGenerator has identified other areas that built out dedicated commercialization efforts despite local universities working in the field of study.
“We’re going to try to attract technologies from those other cities to come here and get involved in for-profit companies here,” Arader said.