St. Louis' defense industry and its world-class medical institutions are two pillars of the local economy, but there have been few connections between the two. BioSTL hopes a $1.5 million federal grant will change that.
The money, awarded last week, will help the industry group launch a Center for Defense Medicine, which will take technology from university labs and turn it into businesses that can meet the military's needs.
The new program should benefit firms like Gateway Biotechnology, a St. Louis startup developing drugs to prevent noise-related hearing loss and to treat tinnitus, or ringing in the ears.
Gateway knew its products would be useful to the armed forces, where hearing problems are the leading cause of service-related disability, but it needed help navigating the procurement process. The firm turned to BioGenerator, the investment arm of BioStL, which had engaged Kenneth Bertram, a medical doctor and retired Army officer, as a consultant.
Bertram, who will be director of the new Center for Defense Medicine, made introductions and helped Gateway understand the military's needs. Gateway landed a $10.5 million Army contract last year, in cooperation with Washington University and two other universities, to investigate its hearing-protection treatment.
Gateway is also talking to the Army about other needs, including a treatment for soldiers who suffer tinnitus after exposure to helicopter noise.
“The military can be your customer base and can fund you the whole way,” said Tom Brutnell, Gateway's vice president for research and development. “Having them as a customer is a big step for us.”
With nearby installations like Scott Air Force Base and Fort Leonard Wood, St. Louis has strong ties to the active military. Thanks to contractors like Boeing, it also ranks high in attracting defense dollars.
But Harry Arader, who directs entrepreneur development programs at BioGenerator, came up empty when he looked for military medical contractors. “We really were underperforming,” he said. “We couldn't find a single company in St. Louis that made medical products for the military.”
“There are ideas and products coming out of our universities that could help the military, so our idea was to put some philanthropic dollars to work and advance those ideas into real companies,” Arader explained.
Another company BioGenerator helped was NuPeak Therapeutics, which is developing drugs to treat lung inflammation. After NuPeak was rejected for a Defense Department grant, Bertram advised it to focus on burn pit syndrome, a lung malady suffered by troops who oversee the burning of military waste.
“They resubmitted the grant, targeting burn pit syndrome, and got a $3 million award,” Arader said. “The military has resources, but they also have specific programmatic requirements, and they are very protective of that money unless there's a clear way it will benefit the war fighter.”
BioGenerator will match the $1.5 million federal grant with private funds to get the new center up and running this fall. It also intends to launch a for-profit company that will license promising medical-device technologies with military applications.
Arader and his colleagues have already contacted 20 universities around the country, and he said they have identified about 30 technologies of potential interest to the military. They won't all be brought to St. Louis, but strengthening local startups is central to the center's mission.
“We're committed to supporting an entire ecosystem,” Arader said. The hope is that St. Louis, already known for its military ties and medical research, can leverage both to create a new economic engine.