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Research-Centered Biotech Booms in Jefferson County

Research assets, a new science park and a collaborative spirit underpin growth in the Jefferson County biotech sector.

By Kathryn Royster on July 22, 2014

World-class research assets and a new life sciences park are making Jefferson County an increasingly attractive base for biotech firms.

The National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) is the only FDA lab outside the Washington, D.C.,”Beltway” and a cornerstone of Jefferson County’s biotech sector. Founded in 1971, the 1-million-square-foot center is an international research hub with partners from the corporate, academic and public sectors.

“We specialize in research that translates knowledge and technology into processes that improve the FDA’s ability to assess the safety of products,” says Director William Slikker, Jr, Ph.D.

Commercializing Research

Sometimes NCTR research uncovers technologies that are suitable for consumer use, which is where companies like Vivione Biosciences enter the picture. NCTR and Vivione recently signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement for moving some of those technologies from the lab to the marketplace.

“We’re the first company to take a product out of NCTR and commercialize it,” says Vivione CEO Kevin Kuykendall. “I think that’s good for the state, and it’s good for NCTR.”

Vivione’s current focus is a rapid-test system for pathogenic E. Coli and other harmful bacteria. Whereas a typical test yields results in 24-48 hours, the Vivione system produces results in 5-7 hours. Kuykendall sees applications for hospitals and other clinical settings, pharmaceutical companies, sterile manufacturing and food production.

Other joint NCTR-Vivione projects include a molecular design system to aid in the development of new drugs and a rapid-test food-quality indicator that consumers can use to determine whether perishable foods have spoiled.

Kuykendall says Vivione has benefited from financial incentives assistance through the county’s 3/8-cent sales tax, as well as proximity to NCTR, the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville’s food science program and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. The result is a truly statewide, knowledge-based support system.

“There really is a collaborative mentality between the technology companies and the universities here,” Kuykendall says.

Building for Collaboration

The Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County plans to strengthen those collaborative relationships through development of the Bioplex, a life sciences park that will sit adjacent to NCTR. Construction on a research center there is scheduled to run late fall of 2014 through June 2016, and Vivione will be one of the anchor tenants.

“This Bioplex Technology Center (BTC) will be the anchor institution for our region’s emerging strength in biotech and life sciences,” says Bryan Barnhouse, director of economic development for the Alliance. “We are showcasing a proven approach for turning our area into a center for innovation.”

The other potential BTC anchor tenant will be the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s Aquaculture/Fisheries Center, for a program still in developmental stages but promising for its research and training possibilities.

Plans for the BTC also include leasable wet lab space and an 80-person, globally connected conferencing center for use by NCTR.

“The conference facilities will facilitate the growing global outreach of our scientific programs,” says NCTR’s Slikker.

According to Barnhouse, it all comes together to form a strong support structure for a growing industry.

“We have such close public-private partnerships here,” he says. “In order to punch above our weight, we need to collaborate and work together. We’re that way – it’s in our DNA to do that.”

Read more about life sciences in Jefferson County.

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