Within seven months of receiving a $750,000 Targeted Industry Project Grant from WEDC and $200,000 in seed funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, Forward BIOLABS had already maxed out its capacity and begun gearing up for expansion. This is evidence of the rapid and visible growth taking place in Wisconsin’s biomanufacturing sector—growth that Forward BIOLABS is playing a critical role in supporting.
A fully equipped, maintained and shared life science lab, Forward BIOLABS gives early-stage companies breathing room and resources to transition research into successful commercialization. Based in Madison’s University Research Park, Forward BIOLABS operates a small laboratory and common office space to foster collaboration among startup member companies, industry sponsors and service providers. This “phase 1” facility also receives support from WiCell, which allows Forward BIOLABS to sublet its overflow laboratory.
“There isn’t another shared life science laboratory like this in Wisconsin—or Minnesota, Illinois or Iowa for that matter,” says Forward BIOLABS cofounder Jessica Martin Eckerly. “The lab facilities, network and community that Forward BIOLABS provides are powerful tools enabling member startups to move faster than they otherwise would.”
The unique setup allows company founders to leverage capital more efficiently by focusing on technology and business development rather than renting space, buying equipment and outfitting a lab.
The rapid start of Forward BIOLABS’ inaugural class as well as the growing list of startups eager to get into its labs show there is a need for specialized resources that Wisconsin-based biomanufacturing entrepreneurs can tap into to achieve growth. Thanks to the initiative, their work is shepherded along from pre-incorporation through the launch phase with guidance from public and private partners.
Forward BIOLABS’ current members are:
- Gregor Diagnostics, a molecular diagnostics company developing a revolutionary screening test for prostate cancer;
- Empirico, an early-stage therapeutics company founded on using medical data sets, human genetics and programmable biology to power novel target discovery and development;
- Vascugen, a regenerative medicine company engaged in the development of advanced therapies to treat incurable conditions caused by loss or degeneration of blood vessels; and
- Dianomi Therapeutics, a development-stage biopharmaceutical company initially focused on osteoarthritis and pain utilizing sustained-release drug delivery technology from the lab of UW-Madison biomedical engineering professor and faculty fellow Dr. William Murphy.
The facility enables members to be more agile than they otherwise could be thanks to the easily accessible, high-quality workspace and equipment.
“Empirico needed to initiate R&D operations immediately following our Series A financing round,” says Dave Lewis, the company’s head of therapeutic development. “The lead times and costs required to get facilities up and running were daunting. Forward BIOLABS offered well-equipped lab space, along with the infrastructure and support that enabled us to start operations almost immediately. Of course, this came at a fraction of the cost of building our own facility.”
Empirico and the other member startups make the most of a space that allows individual growth and a sense of community with other innovators in the biomanufacturing space.
“Although each company is working on developing different technologies, we can connect them to resources they weren’t aware of, and we’ve run into them helping each other in the lab,” Martin Eckerly notes.
Ongoing and expanding biomanufacturing focus
Forward BIOLABS is one of three pillars within the Forward BIO Initiative, a Madison-based center of excellence designed to help groundbreaking research move out of the labs and into the marketplace. In addition to Forward BIOLABS, the initiative also includes:
- the Forward BIO Institute, which is based at UW-Madison and supports research, workforce development and public-private partnerships in biomanufacturing; and
- BioForward Wisconsin, which creates avenues of corporate engagement with entrepreneurs engaged with the initiative.
Altogether, the initiative is enhancing Wisconsin’s status as a national leader in the biomanufacturing industry, which includes the advanced manufacturing of therapeutic medical devices, cells, tissues or pharmaceuticals—and it is doing so by capitalizing on the groundwork laid by numerous Wisconsin educators and innovators.
“Dr. Bill Murphy had the vision to identify Wisconsin as unique not only in its academic expertise but in the broad range of companies that biomanufacturing comprises,” says Lisa Johnson, CEO of BioForward Wisconsin. “He recognized we needed to move as a state to become the Midwest hub for biomanufacturing before others laid claim.”
This first-mover advantage serves the Forward BIO Initiative well, and BIOLABS continues to focus on developing Wisconsin’s biomanufacturing ecosystem.
“Forward BIOLABS is novel due to the partnership it has with Forward BIO Institute and with BioForward Wisconsin,” Johnson says. “The community recognized we needed shared lab space that wasn’t just incubator space, but rather a partnership with a grander vision that could support early-stage companies and spotlight them as part of Wisconsin’s biomanufacturing center of excellence.
“We work collaboratively and are very focused on initiatives such as Forward BIO,” she adds. “We know many of the key players in this state and how to bring them together to advance and support the emerging-growth companies within Forward BIOLABS. We have the industry and academic expertise that jointly gives us a competitive advantage.”
WEDC’s investment in the Forward BIO Initiative is part of a long-term strategy to grow and expand targeted, high-growth business clusters that ultimately leads to significant job growth in Wisconsin. WEDC-supported centers of excellence, including the Global Water Center and the Energy Innovation Center, serve as cluster “anchors” around which educational and corporate R&D, commercialization, external investment and company attraction connections are made.