In its lab on Russell Street, researchers from Bexion Pharmaceuticals are working to revolutionize the treatment of cancer. (Photo used courtesy of Bexion)
City partnering with Bexion, CTI, Gravity Diagnostics
on facility that would accelerate life sciences-biotech work
COVINGTON, Ky. – Bexion Pharmaceuticals began in 2006 with two researchers, shards of incredible data, and an almost fantastical idea.
Many years later, the gaze of the medical world is focused anxiously on the Covington company and its clinical trials – i.e., tests on humans – of its lead compound, BXQ-350. What sounds like a license plate is actually a biologic compound – a “drug” – that could very well one day prove to be the proverbial, almost mythical, cure for cancer.
This article isn’t about BXQ-350, however. It’s about Bexion’s journey.
How Bexion arrived at this dramatic threshold – and the role played by lab space the company rented in its fledging years from an incubator on Russell Street – is the key to understanding the desperate and urgent need for a proposed life sciences research and development facility in Covington.
Months in the making, the proposal (whose details are below) came to light last week when Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear included $10 million in his proposed two-year budget for the design and construction of the “wet” lab, so-called because it would be equipped with plumbing, ventilation, and other equipment needed for hands-on scientific work.
Its proponents – an informal partnership led by the City of Covington and nationally renowned bio-tech firms located in the city – say the proposed lab is the missing key to creating dozens of Bexions and accelerating the growth of Northern Kentucky’s already vibrant life sciences sector.
“There are smart people in this region, strong research institutions, emerging businesses with good ideas, and sources of funding – what’s missing is the lab space needed to generate data and grow those businesses,” said Margaret van Gilse, Bexion’s vice president, business development. “When we started, there was no wet lab space for rent between Columbus, Ohio, and Lexington, Ky. … and I believe that’s still the case.”
The other companies in the partnership are Gravity Diagnostics, a certified and accredited laboratory that has gained national attention for its work during the pandemic; and CTI Clinical Trial and Consulting Services, a global contract research organization specializing in rare diseases, cell and gene therapies, and complex programs in critically ill patients. Another cmopany in Covington's thriving life sciences sector is BioWish Technologies, which develops commercial products in agriculture and environmental markets.
Gravity Diagnostics CEO Tony Remington said the proposed facility would do more than establish a space full of autoclaves, beakers, gas burners, and microscopes – it would also create a hub of entrepreneurial spirit and ideas where companies and people would encourage and assist each other.
“A ‘wet’ lab is more than a physical space with tangible equipment,” Remington said. “It’s a culture, an experience. (In our early years), we benefitted from such a place, and we want to do the same for others.”
Like Bexion, which now has 25 employees, the growth of Gravity Diagnostics has been explosive over the past few years. The company has tested over 3 million COVID-19 samples (and counting) since the pandemic started, rapidly improving both the accuracy of tests and the turnaround time. Now with almost 450 employees and a $38 million payroll, it expanded its space tenfold when it moved last year two blocks south to 812 Russell St. from 632 Russell, the same building that still houses Bexion.
The connection isn’t coincidental. The building at 632 Russell – located at the head of Covington’s “Innovation Alley” – has helped nurture a number of biotech startups.
Remington credited Bexion Chairman Chuck Scheper and CTI’s chairman and CEO, Tim Schroeder, with supporting Gravity Diagnostics during its early years, saying they helped him make critical contacts and navigate funding processes.
CTI, whose global headquarters is in the RiverCenter II office tower on the Covington riverfront, is one of the 20 largest companies of its kind in the world, with associates in more than 60 countries across six continents. Last month it announced a $100 million joint venture with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to form a company that will provide cell and gene therapy manufacturing services to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.
Showing the interconnected nature of the health sciences sector, CTI’s clients include Bexion and its clinical trials.
Schroeder was quoted in Innovation Express magazine recently praising the biotech talent in Greater Cincinnati. “We founded CTI in this region because we recognize the talent and we see how passionate the people here are about making a difference,” he said. “This is a natural hub for international medical innovation.”
Remington agreed, saying R&D lab represents the type of infrastructure investment that will accelerate that momentum and attract even more like-minded start-ups, researchers, and entrepreneurs.
“There’s a lot of energy here in biotech,” Remington said. “Build it, and they will come.”
The final say on the $10 million allocation will come from the 138-member Kentucky General Assembly, which is meeting now to pass a state budget and take up other legislation. Covington officials have reached out to the 16-member Northern Kentucky Legislative Caucus to seek their support for the lab and the companies, and City officials are encouraging others who care about the industry and region to do likewise.
City officials say the presence of the four companies – their innovation, national impact, contributions to the field, and growth – is difficult to downplay.
“Unless you’re in life sciences, you might not appreciate the magnitude of these companies’ work and the breadth of their reputation,” Covington Economic Development Director Tom West said. “So, when they say this shared lab is the single-biggest missing element that can help Northern Kentucky build on its momentum in life sciences and biotech and help it attract and grow new companies, we all should not only listen but also take action.”
Other partners in the proposed lab include Northern Kentucky University, Northern Kentucky Tri-ED, the Kentucky Small Business Development Center, and the NKU Collaborative for Economic Engagement.
The allocation would also be a catalyst for private and local support for the R&D space needed by companies working in life sciences, with examples being fields like cell biology, genetics, molecular biology and microbiology, botany, ecology, and physiology.
SIZE: As currently envisioned, the lab would include 10,000 square feet of space. Global real estate experts say that’s enough to accommodate about 15 startup companies, as well as meeting rooms and shared amenities.
LOCATION: The lab would be built on land contributed by the City. Covington has several possible locations in mind, West said. Covington’s Motor Vehicle Parking Authority would provide and manage the parking needed for the lab.
MANAGEMENT: A non-profit corporation would be established to oversee the facility’s construction and operations, with a board that represents both life sciences experts and public sector partners. To manage the facility day to day, that board would hire an outside firm with experience managing such facilities.
COST: The $10 million does not include the cost of land acquisition, parking, or operations. Once stabilized, operations would be funded by rent, foundational support, and contributions from local companies. After the lab opens, the partnership would leverage state and local incentives to encourage startups to remain and grow in Kentucky.
Covington is already home to a thriving critical mass of life sciences companies and employment and the national outlook is robust.
In Northern Kentucky, employment in the Life Sciences cluster grew over 82 percent from 2014 to 2019, with a majority of company growth in this sector located in the urban core of Covington, according to a brand-new labor analysis from Northern Kentucky Tri-ED.
During that same period, R&D funding increased by $100 million at the University of Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky University, and Miami University alone. Those three universities collectively manage nearly a half a billion each year in Life Sciences R&D funding.
“As reflected by the comparatively high wages commanded by workers in these clusters, growth in areas such as Life Sciences and Information Technology will create new job opportunities for homegrown talent that might otherwise commute out of the region for employment,” the report noted.
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