COLUMBIA, SC — When San Diego native Andrew Lee received a doctorate in chemistry from the University of South Carolina in 2010, he wanted to use his research and that of other scientists to launch new companies.
Lee and a partner received a federal grant to develop vaccines that don’t require refrigeration, which would be a boon to Third World countries and have a substantial market around the globe. But to finish the product, he needed a wet lab – an expensive research laboratory requiring specialized equipment for handling volatile liquids.
“A wet lab was essential,” said Lee, who often had to lease wet lab space at USC during odd hours so as to not conflict with the university’s regular, academic research. “It’s ideal to have your own company space.”
Lee was recruited by other states, including Georgia, which offered to provide the necessary facilities. But he was able to stay in South Carolina because of IdeaLab – a cluster of wet labs located on the first floor of USC’s Horizon Building, part of the school’s Innovista research campus.
Lee’s company, A&Q Nano, is one of three private firms now in the IdeaLab. Putting private firms in the Horizon building returns Innovista to its original mission - pairing USC research with private companies, on campus, to create jobs, USC officials said.
“Conceptually, we are returning to the idea of Innovista as a physical location and research district where private companies can locate to partner with the university and access support and resources,” said Bill Kirkland, USC’s chief of the new Office of Economic Engagement. “We’re currently well positioned not only to see activity ramp up in existing space, but also the potential for development as we continue to foster new business partnerships.”
Innovista was conceived from a rather simple idea.
USC scientists win patents. The university makes money by licensing those patents to companies and entrepreneurs. Those companies and entrepreneurs develop products from the patents and make money selling them.
The area’s economy benefits because entrepreneurs and companies hire people to build and sell the products, which makes the city more attractive to high-tech workers, investors, students and researchers.
“We’re the state’s flagship research institution and have a special obligation to contribute to the quality of life in our state,” Kirkland said. “Our fortunes rise and fall together. A stronger, more diverse South Carolina economy makes it easier to recruit top faculty and students and also helps ensure that this is a vibrant place for talented graduates to live and work.”
But Innovista’s history has been a rocky one.
When announced in 2005, the research campus was intended to draw big-time, high-tech firms like IBM. To attract the companies, private developers would build private high-rise buildings, and attract tenants to them by touting USC research and all the amenities of a downtown campus where the researchers, executives and high-tech workers would live, work and play together.
USC spent $100 million – most of it taxpayers dollars granted by the state, the county and the city – to build two academic research buildings and accompanying parking garages – the Horizon and Discovery buildings.
Two private developers, however, failed to attract any firms and didn’t build the two expected private high-rise buildings, which were to be named Horizon II and Discovery II.
Then, in 2007 the economy crashed leaving any recruitment of established companies a long shot at best.
The university then redefined Innovista, under former Roche Global Chemical Manufacturing head Don Herriott, as more of a concept of economic outreach rather than a geographic area and buildings.
“It is the talent, knowledge and expertise that exist within the university and our ability to connect that into the market place,” Herriott said in a statement at the time.
Back to the future
Now, according to Kirkland, the former head of USC’s business incubator, Innovista is going back to the future.
Locating budding companies in the Horizon building – coupled with the relocation of the Moore School of Business and construction of new dorms in the district – takes Innovista back to its original boundaries, which run roughly from Main Street to Huger Street and Blossom Street to Senate Street.
“We’ve had to be flexible in our approach to Innovista and adapt to certain realities over time,” Kirkland said.
IdeaLab, located at the corner of Main and Blossom streets, is 80 percent occupied.
• Lee’s company, A&Q Nano, is attempting to find ways to decrease storage and transportation costs of vaccines in developing countries. Lee is partnering with USC chemistry professor Qian Wang to create vaccines that don’t need refrigeration. This would allow for more effective distribution in Third World countries, where getting vaccines to the people who need them is problematic.
The company’s lease began Dec. 1. The firm employs two people with hopes of expanding to six this summer.
Integrated Micro-chromatography Systems is another Lee company, producing pipette tips that can speed up drug screenings that lower the tests costs. The company is a partnership between Lee and DPX Labs. DPX manufactures the pipette tips. IMCS makes the micro-filters that go in the pipettes and allows for the separation of specific biological material from the sample.
That lease began on July 1. The number of people employed at the firm was not available.
Selah Genomics is a clinical diagnostic specialist providing molecular diagnostic testing and genomic profiling. It uses DNA sequencing to create customizable drugs for patients. This is part of the movement toward personalized medicine, which is important as genetics plays a key role in how patients respond to treatments.
The lease began Feb 1. The number of people employed at the firm was not available.
Although the new firms are small, university officials view them as a significant step toward Innovista working the way it was originally intended.
“Making this lab space available is just one way to show we’re serious about seeing USC become a more active player in encouraging entrepreneurship and supporting startup companies as well as partnering with existing businesses to grow the economy of the Midlands and the state,” Kirkland said.