State of the Low Country:Life Sciences Sector Thriving
May 09, 2018 07:00AM ● Published by Makayla Gay
By Holly Fisher
From pharmaceuticals and medical devices to research and laboratory testing, the state’s life sciences field is growing. The Charleston area is home to several established companies and startups making a mark on the biomedical and health industries.
Christine Thiesing, director of academic programs at South Carolina Research Authority, has been working in Charleston’s life sciences industry since she moved here 15 years ago. She can point to examples around the region and all over the state of companies that are 3D printing medical device prototypes, making new research discoveries and embarking on biomedical engineering.
In her current role at SCRA, Thiesing is helping foster collaboration across public institutions – both the technical colleges and universities – so researchers are working effectively and efficiently.
She ensures schools are making good use of their funding and not duplicating resources. Instead of buying a $750,000 microscope, why not borrow one from another school, she explained.
Collaboration is also needed between the engineers developing new technology and medical solutions and the clinicians who are the ultimate end users of a new product or medical device, Thiesing said.
This kind of collaboration shortens the process and can save money in the long run. “We get the correct engineers together with the clinicians at the outset to trim time and money off the development process,” she said.
Efficiencies are an important part of the process. “If you take an extra year, you may be supplanted by a competitor,” Thiesing said. “Time is important. ‘First to market’ is a common strategy in the medical device market.”
Growing medical startups
SCRA is just one organization supporting the life sciences industry. The Charleston Regional Development Alliance, the MUSC Foundation for Research Development, SCBIO, and the Roper St. Francis Innovation Center are all fueling the region’s life science and biomedical fields.
“It’s a good time to be in Charleston if you’re in life sciences because this is a growing area,” said Michael Rusnak, executive director of the MUSC Foundation for Research Development.
The foundation evaluates intellectual assets coming out of the Medical University of South Carolina and assists with next steps – technology license, research collaboration, new startup venture, or a combination of those. The foundation aims to be a one-stop shop for advancing innovation at MUSC.
“There is less and less venture capital available for small companies, so the university is putting money in and partnering with accelerators,” said Rusnak, a board member of SCBIO. “We’re seeing a lot of new companies forming and getting funded at the early stage.”
As an example, Zeriscope, a mobile telemedicine examination system, last year received a U.S. patent for key components of the system. Dr. Robert J. Adams developed the concepts behind Zeriscope as part of his work at MUSC. He then coordinated with the MUSC Foundation for Research Development to secure Zeriscope’s patent. The company also received financial assistance from the SCRA SC Launch program and the South Carolina Smart State Centers of Excellence program.
Zeriscope allows a physician to conduct a comprehensive, real-time examination of a patient in a separate location. The physician receives audio and video from the point-of-view of a telepresenter – such as a nurse, paramedic, or caregiver – along with patient physiological information collected with components contained in the Zeriscope examination kit.
“We have a university that is really looking at innovation like it’s never done before,” Rusnak said. “My office has grown as part of that. More technology is being advanced. More entrepreneurial faculty are coming here because they see an anchor here to grow in. We have an office that helps them set up companies and helps with funding.”
Picking Charleston for an expansion
Charleston’s business-friendly climate and overall appeal as a place to live is attractive to innovative researchers and engineers as well as businesses looking for a place to expand.
Thorne is building a brand new 260,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Summerville. The company will have its first employees on board this spring and be at full production later this year. Thorne plans to ultimately employ more than 300 people at the facility.
The company started more than 30 years ago creating high-quality nutritional supplements. Thorne invested in the best ingredients, perfected its manufacturing methods, and participated in clinical research. The company has evolved into a health and technology company focused on helping consumers take control of their health and live a healthy life with its at-home biomarker tests and analytical software.
Based on individual test results, Thorne’s technology and team can deliver a personalized plan on what to eat, how to exercise, and which Thorne supplements to take.
Outgrowing its Idaho facility, the company began scouting for a city that would be attractive to young talent and near the East Coast as the company is headquartered in New York City, said CEO Paul F. Jacobson.
Thorne executives narrowed the options to Charleston and Austin. The efforts of then-Gov. Nikki Haley, the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, and others convinced Thorne that this Southern city was the place to be.
“It was like the whole community got behind us to come to Charleston. It was very coordinated,” Jacobson said. “They have followed through on everything they said they would.”
Not slowing down
Charles River is among the earlier life sciences company to operate in Charleston. Working across the globe, the company is an early-stage contract research organization that provides products and services to help pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, government agencies, and academic institutions accelerate their research and drug development efforts. The organization’s microbial solutions business arm runs out of Charleston.
One of the more interesting aspects of the business is its use of horseshoe crab blood – which can detect bacterial toxins – in its research. Charles River is dedicated to the conservation of horseshoe crabs and in the early 1990s worked with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources on legislation to prohibit the use of horseshoe crabs as bait. As a result, the horseshoe crab population has been increasing in South Carolina for the past 15 years.
So, from the environment to the economy, life science businesses are contributing greatly to the Charleston region. According to the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, Charleston is home to more than 75 medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturers, research laboratories, and service providers.
These companies typically pay higher-than-average wages and attract high-skilled workers to the region. And those with a finger on the pulse of this business sector aren’t anticipating any slow-down in new companies and new jobs.
“Charleston is definitely a growing life science community. Since our site first opened here in 1987, we’ve seen significant growth in the industry around us – it’s an exciting place to be,” said John Dubczak, general manager of Microbial Solutions for Charles River. “We’re very fortunate both to find great talent in the local Charleston area and attract industry-leading scientists to relocate to this beautiful city.”