A large ice sculpture is crushed during the 'Break the Ice' ceremony hosted by Velocity, TX.
(from left) BioBridge CEO Martin Landon, GenCure Senior VP and COO Becky Butler Cap, and TRTF Board Chairman Steve Dufilho smash a large ice sculpture during the 'Break the Ice' ceremony hosted by VelocityTX. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Days after securing millions of dollars in economic incentive dollars, the Texas Research and Technology Foundation and its entrepreneurship arm VelocityTX on Tuesday announced the anchor tenant of its $220 million redevelopment of an untended Eastside building.

San Antonio-based nonprofit BioBridge Global will establish its 21,000-square-foot biomanufacturing center in the redeveloped Merchants Ice site at 1304 and 1305 E. Houston St. The space will allow BioBridge subsidiary GenCure to scale its production of adult stem cells for use in clinical trials and eventually treatment of conditions as broad-ranging as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, traumatic injuries, and acute lung injuries, said Becky Butler Cap, senior vice president and chief operating officer of GenCure.

Although federal agencies such as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration have issued warnings recently about the risks associated with some stem cell therapies, research and development in the space has skyrocketed over the past few years. The regenerative medicine market generated $17 billion in revenue in 2016. That number is expected to rise to $50.5 billion by 2025, according to a January 2018 report. 

With three stem cell products on the market today treating cancers, it is a critical time to remain competitive in the market, Butler Cap said.

“There are about 1,000 clinical trials that are going on right now in stem cells and regenerative medicine,” she said. “Because of the infusion of money and the regulatory comfort around some of these therapies, it’s moving faster. The big roadblock is manufacturing space, and getting to that scale. So we are filling that void with the work we are doing.”

A family of nonprofits that collects and produces biomaterials, such as blood, tissue, and stem cells, BioBridge founded GenCure in 2013. GenCure’s biomanufacturing work took shape in 2016, and its current facilities comprise a 1,200-square-foot production space and a 1,000-square-foot process development lab at BioBridge’s headquarters off Interstate 10.

With the opening of its new facility at the former Merchants Ice Building, GenCure’s operations will expand to 6,000 square feet of clean-room production space, which can be further built out to 14,000 square feet; a 2,500-square-foot development lab; and meeting and office space.

The Merchants Ice and Cold Stage Building on East Houston Street.
San Antonio-based nonprofit BioBridge Global will establish its biomanufacturing center in the redeveloped Merchants Ice site at 1304 and 1305 E. Houston St. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

GenCure will move into the center by the end of the year, along with VelocityTX, as the first phase of the complex is set to be completed by the fall.

“There’s a lot of development [in the regenerative medicine space],” BioBridge CEO Martin Landon said. “Just having the space, the means by which we can produce those cells in the quantities needed, required a larger facility, and this gave us that opportunity.”

The announcement was made Tuesday at a groundbreaking ceremony for the VelocityTX innovation center, a four-acre site that will serve as an innovation district for the life sciences. The center aims to act as an incubator by helping early-stage startups with innovative products become viable. The development of the entire district will take shape in four phases over a 10-year period. When completed, the district is expected to create about 665 jobs whose combined annual income and benefits will exceed $78 million, according to a news release.

The Texas Research and Technology Foundation, the umbrella organization of VelocityTX, will work to bring jobs to native Eastsiders, CEO Randy Harig said.

“We’re committed to hiring from the East Side first by working with middle and high school students to develop skills in biology, math, and chemistry so that we can provide them good-paying jobs in their neighborhood,” he said.

The groundbreaking of its VelocityTX facility comes after a shift in focus for the foundation, decades after developing the Texas Research Park in West San Antonio. The approximately 1,500-acre commercial development just outside of Loop 1604 failed to generate the private-sector interest the organization had hoped for.

“The vision didn’t turn out to be exactly what we all thought,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who served as mayor during the early phases of that project. “But they were smart enough and creative enough to be able to sell part of the land, take those funds, and now make things happen around San Antonio. And I can’t thank Randy Harig enough for making their first big investment right here on the East Side of town.”

In 2015, TRTF sold a 160-acre plat in the Texas Research Park development to Microsoft for the construction of a data center. The proceeds from the sale are largely being used to fund the first years of the VelocityTX operation, but the project also received a $750,000 grant for operational costs in its first five years. An economic incentive package from the City also included $5 million for public improvements, such as drainage and site work, which will be funded by a City-initiated Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone. The zone, or VelocityTX’s innovation district, will capture a tax revenue increase from the development within it.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley said the innovation center is the missing piece in the local bioscience ecosystem, and Ann Stevens, who heads the biomedical industry organization BioMed SA, echoed that thought. Stevens said the VelocityTX center will address a need for building space for early-stage entrepreneurs in the biosciences.

“For the last several years there has been a scarcity of incubation space anywhere until TRTF created VelocityTX, and this was their mission to create space,” Stevens said. “They’ve done it in a huge way by buying five old buildings they’re going to rehab for an innovation center.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.