Nanogel brain neural regeneration. Brainwave-powered prosthetic arms. Smart gel wound dressings. These biotech breakthroughs no longer stem from the realms of science fiction, but are part of present-day scientific development.

Leading genetic scientists have called the 21st century the century of biology. At the center of the explosive growth in bioscience lies biotechnology or biotech, an ecosystem with a growing presence in San Antonio.

According to the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce’s 2014 Health Care & Bioscience Economic Impact Study, the health care and bioscience industry is among the leading drivers of the San Antonio’s economy with an annual impact of $30.6 billion dollars. Almost 165,000 people – or one in six employees in San Antonio – work in the health care and bioscience industry.

In this four-part series, the Rivard Report will explore how the biotech industry in San Antonio got its start and what it will take to build a lasting biotech ecosystem. Some of the things that make biotech unique might surprise you.

What Exactly is Biotech?

The health care and bioscience landscape is vast and diversified. Life science companies can range from pharmaceutical enterprises to medical device and technology companies to startups that develop technologies that are applicable in medical treatments. In its simplest definition, biotechnology is technology based on biology. Biotech uses biological processes, organisms, and systems to manufacture products designed for humans.

“Biotech means you’re doing something that relates to life science and medicine using some kind of advanced therapy that is rooted in a biologic process,” StemBioSys President and CEO Robert Hutchens said. “In biotech, that approach produces a product that improves the quality of human life.”

From left: StemBioSys Co-Founder Dr. Steven Davis, Vice Chairman of San Antonio Economic Development Foundation Don Frost, StemBioSys CEO Bob Hutchens, visit during the 2014 World Stem Cell Summit. Photo by Cherise Allegrini.
From left: StemBioSys Co-Founder Dr. Steven Davis, Vice Chairman of San Antonio Economic Development Foundation Don Frost, StemBioSys CEO Bob Hutchens, visit during the 2014 World Stem Cell Summit. Photo by Cherise Allegrini.

Established in San Antonio in 2012, StemBioSys is a private biomedical company that focuses on the isolation, expansion, and delivery of specialized adult stem cells for research, diagnostic, and clinical use.

Biotech startups are markedly different from tech startups due to the industry’s rigorous standards for validating scientific research. Longer lead times, stringent testing, high stakes, and strict regulatory guidelines and compliance make funding a biotech startup more expensive, Hutchens said.

“If software doesn’t work, that’s a problem, sure, but if a life science product doesn’t work? That (failure) impacts people’s lives,” he added. “The regulatory hurdles are very high, as they should be. That’s why there are requirements for multi-year studies and clinical trials, to ensure the product does what it is supposed to do.”

The bottom line is that it takes more time, requires more capital, and is generally more challenging to successfully build a biotech company than a typical tech startup. Conducting clinical trials, setting up spaces for wet lab facilities and equipment used in bioscience, and paying scientists for specialized bioscience expertise can add up quickly.

The efforts to attract established bioscience companies and grow new biotech startups in San Antonio have been underway for a little over ten years, but have just recently grown considerably.

Bioscience and Military Medicine Emerge in San Antonio

BioMed SA President Ann Stevens with Dr. Mauli Agrawal of UTSA, 2010 Palmaz Award Honoree, and Henry Cisneros, Founding Chair of BioMed SA.
BioMed SA President Ann Stevens with Dr. Mauli Agrawal of UTSA, 2010 Palmaz Award Honoree, and Henry Cisneros, Founding Chair of BioMed SA.

San Antonio has yet to receive ample recognition for its unique biomedical assets, namely the significant size of its local health care and bioscience industry. In 2005, former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros and Councilman Joe Krier (D9), who at the time presided over the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, collaborated to create BioMed SA, a nonprofit entity charged with raising the visibility of San Antonio’s bioscience sector and increasing the amount of cooperation and networking within the bioscience community.

The City of San Antonio, Bexar County, and CPS Energy provided grants totaling $250,000 to launch BioMed SA as a nonprofit corporation in a public-private partnership. Ann Stevens, former director of corporate communications and investor relations for San Antonio’s first publicly traded biotech company ILEX Oncology, was hired as president to lead the new organization and build a private sector membership base.

Around the same time, the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), in which Congress ordered military medical missions in San Antonio to be consolidated, transformed the city into an epicenter for military medicine. The 2005 BRAC led to the creation of the San Antonio Military Medical Center, the largest inpatient health care facility in the Department of Defense and the military’s only Level I trauma center. Military medical training was also merged under one roof at Fort Sam Houston‘s newly established Medical Education and Training Campus, a state-of-the-art military health care education campus for enlisted medical personnel.

By March 2008, the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM), a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary network, was created to develop advanced treatment options for severely wounded service members. The U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research (USAISR), located next to Brooke Army Medical Center in the San Antonio Military Medical Center complex, became the only Defense Department research facility focused on traumatic injury with laboratory and clinical research capabilities dedicated to regenerative medicine.

Regenerative medicine focuses on stem cell treatments, research, and tissue engineering, a highly relevant biotech application for wounded military service members, but also for the general population. It is exactly this cutting-edge research on regenerative medicine that sets San Antonio’s military medical community apart from those in other major metropolitan areas.

“Regenerative medicine can help address the health care crisis we face – the aging of the population,” StemBioSys’ Hutchens said. “The potential with biotech is to cure disease, not just to treat symptoms. For example, with diabetes, we can control it now, but we’re not curing anybody. Curing diseases will help improve the quality of life and is especially cost-effective with chronic diseases.”

The growth of San Antonio’s military medicine center as well as its emphasis on education, research, and practice has not gone unnoticed.

“Biotech is a competitive industry worldwide, with many research universities and companies working to come up with new ideas,” BioMedSA President Ann Stevens said. “The military has a specialized focus, and with the U.S. military medical activity focused here, it is a huge differentiating factor for San Antonio.”

Military medical activity is not the only source of San Antonio’s biomedical strength, however. Add in the private sector along with San Antonio’s medical school and universities and you have the genesis for a biotech cluster to emerge. San Antonio’s biomedical research community has developed around this core of academic and nonprofit institutions, along with private-sector companies.

“Research is the fuel that drives the bioscience industry, and it comes from three main sources: academia, the private sector, and the U.S. military,” Stevens stressed. “And San Antonio has critical mass in all three areas.”

Tomorrow, Part II will cover the growing biotech ecosystem in San Antonio – including academic research and innovation, the private sector, and venture capital.

Top image: Biotechnology fuses medicine with technology to create favorable patient outcomes. Word map stock image.


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Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.