Business incubator helps medical start-ups succeed

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Music no longer resonates from the ground floor. The sounds of science now occupy the former Blue Horse Music Hall on Broad Street.

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Electrician Thomas Gray, of P&T Electric, carries a ladder through the future offices of ClariPath Labratories Inc. in the BioBusiness Center.  Andrew Davis Tucker/Staff
Andrew Davis Tucker/Staff
Electrician Thomas Gray, of P&T Electric, carries a ladder through the future offices of ClariPath Labratories Inc. in the BioBusiness Center.

The stage and sound-proofing are gone, replaced by the outlines of work stations in what will be ClariPath Laboratories' office in November.

In the neighboring suite at the Augusta BioBusiness Center, Teena Enriquez and her staff of four create the kits to detect staph infections.

Another suite at the business incubator is being prepared for a spin-off company from the Medical College of Georgia that sells the technology to allow doctors to remotely examine stroke patients.

The Georgia Medical Center Authority has been trying to recruit biomedical companies to Augusta and other areas since its creation seven years ago. After years of planning, it finally has its own medical science business incubator in Augusta to assist in that endeavor.

And soon it will be full.

"And then the challenge is: where's building two?" said Dr. Donald Colbert, the authority's new executive director.

Dr. Colbert said the authority is contacted at least once a week from a researcher with an idea for a business.

"The first encounters are really reality checks for them. Don't leave your day job, it is wild out here," Dr. Colbert said. "Most of these people are very technically sophisticated, but totally nave when it comes to business."

Dr. Colbert said there's no one lonelier than the president of a start-up company. Because the incubator is full of start-up companies, there are peers and mentors.

The incubator is a second chance for Integrated Science Systems. Ms. Enriquez' company has been around for 16 years, but it landed in financial hot water when a partner was accused of embezzling money. She took over two years ago and charged herself with the task of rebuilding it.

Hundreds of small white boxes fill a few folding tables in the company's small work space. Ms. Enriquez and her employees every month will assemble 500 to 700 kits that detect staph infections and ship them out the back door to distributors.

"That's a small segment of the market, but a large number of tests that we're sending out," she said. "We're small but we have large customers out there."

Integrated Science Systems is under contract to make kits that detect the iron content of blood for a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary called Ortho Clinical Diagnostics. They also make kits for doctors' offices and hospitals that detect pneumonia and measure cholesterol.

Ms. Enriquez appreciates the proximity to the Medical College of Georgia and its researchers as a way to expand her product line.

Dr. Colbert said having an incubator is a recruitment tool for researchers. When the science produces a business, there is a place to start up.

"There are places around the country that are very expensive. They have good technology and people that are spinning out, but the cost of energy and buildings is prohibitive for a starting company."

Cem Oruc, the center's manager, said the authority charges $14 per square foot per year, which includes utilities. So a 13-foot-by-13-foot office would be $197 a month.

In the authority's early years, it steered companies to the Life Sciences Business Development Center at MCG. One of those companies, ClariPath, has outgrown its 2,400 square feet of space there. The 7,200 square feet in the BioBusiness Center will be accommodating for several years, said Mark Repko, ClariPath's director of laboratory services.

"We've learned to crawl over at MCG's incubator. We'll learn to walk here," Mr. Repko said.

ClariPath has 17 employees, and is about to grow by two more when company leaders carve out the territory for the new hires.

ClariPath is a pathology company, its staff conducts the biopsy tests to diagnose diseases, mostly for urologists and gynecologists.

"There were a lot of urologists that needed pathology services. Our parent company, HealthTronics, had already partnered with them with other things, like lasers and lithotripsy, so they thought it would be a good idea to provide a full suite by offering lab services," Mr. Repko explained.

Most of the clients are in the Southeast, Mr. Repko said, though the lab has clients as far away as Washington. Locally, it was hired by Trinity Hospital to do all the anatomical pathology there.

An office and a "dry lab" are being set up for REACH Call, a company that has been operating for the last 14 months out of the home offices of its four employees under the name of REACH MD Consult. They are marketing the telemedicine technology developed at MCG.

The service allows physicians to use a Web browser and Webcam to remotely diagnose stroke patients, who are typically admitted to rural hospitals that don't have on-site neurologists.

Company president Sandeep Egate said they don't provide the doctors, but will use the office in Augusta as a home base to house its technology and market the service to hospitals.

"This facility is going to give us good value in setting up a brick and mortar presence. So far, our company has been virtual," Mr. Egate said.

Mr. Egate said they'll be operating out of downtown Augusta "as soon as we get furniture."

REACH Call has 37 customers in five states. Mr. Egate said they have sales of $2.5 million so far, the current roster of clients will sustain the business for another two years.

The limit for businesses to stay in the BioBusiness Center is six years, Mr. Oruc said. "If we do our job right then they should be moving out before six years."

Because the time commitment to each business is so long, it would be prudent to seek out a third incubator site while searching for a second one, Dr. Colbert said.

Reach Tim Rausch at (706) 823-3352 or timothy.rausch@augustachronicle.com.


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