• 08 Jan 2014

    The Innovation Hub at Insight Park Cultivates Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Partnerships

    Below is the article published in the most recent issue of Point Innovation magazine. The full online magazine is available here. 

    The Innovation Hub at Insight Park Cultivates Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Partnerships

    By Jim Beaugez

    When Jim Sabatier earned his Ph.D. from the University of Mississippi (UM), he knew one day he would put his research discoveries to commercial use. Now, 30 years later, he’s getting his shot at the school’s Innovation Hub at Insight Park, a 62,000-square-foot high-tech center that provides support and infrastructure to startup companies in the knowledge business, including biomedical and pharmaceutical industries.

    Sabatier became the first tenant of the Innovation Hub with his company, Soair, an outgrowth of his life’s work as an acoustical physicist at the National Center for Physical Acoustics located on the university’s Oxford campus.

    Soair is a patented sonar technology that helps doctors monitor and assess fall risk in advanced-age patients by remotely measuring walking speed, leg and torso motion, and other parameters related to balance and walk gait. This technology shows promise in applied eldercare, a sector of the health care industry expected to grow as baby boomers continue to age. With the Innovation Hub as his base, he is able to take advantage of in-house resources to develop his research into a viable business.

    “It was bred into me as a graduate student that this was what I was supposed to do, but I struggled to know how to do it,” said Sabatier. “I’m a university faculty member by career, trying to become a businessman. The Innovation Hub provides all of the pieces I need.”

    The promise of biomed startups like Soair illustrates the potential of cultivating the public-private partnerships that UM is attracting to the Innovation Hub research and business incubator located in Insight Park, the university’s research park.

    A convergence of opportunities is positioning the Innovation Hub and Insight Park for success in the biomedical and pharmaceutical fields, including the Blueprint Mississippi study’s health care recommendations and the recently passed health care zone legislation that provides incentives for business. The Innovation Hub contains wet and dry laboratories and a scale-up synthesis and extraction suite for pharmaceutical and agrichemical compounds. But the university benefits most from its own academic pedigree.

    “The University of Mississippi, at both the Oxford and Jackson campus, has a unique set of intellectual capital to recruit the pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical industry because of the School of Pharmacy, the Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, the School of Applied Sciences, the School of Medicine, the School of Nursing, the School of Dentistry and the School of Health Related Professions,” said Alice Clark, Ph.D., vice chancellor for research at the university. “UM also has expertise of value to health care companies such as nutrition, advanced manufacturing, physical acoustics, workplace wellness, accounting, business and law.”

    The health care industry nationwide experienced a 19 percent job increase during the past decade, and with more than 10,000 boomers retiring daily, the rising need for medical services will drive research and development of technologies – and the manufacturing of related devices – that allow providers to care for more people more efficiently. Research facilities like Insight Park’s Innovation Hub, which combine the university’s brain power with economic infusion, are robust engines for innovation in the new health care economy.

    Blueprint Mississippi suggested a cluster strategy, and locations such as Insight Park should serve as a path to developing health care as an economic driver for the state. The report also noted that the biomedical research underway at Mississippi universities creates opportunities for high-tech business growth, and noted that discoveries made in biomedical research labs can be the basis for new startup companies.

    A consortium of groups that includes the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation and the Tennessee Valley Authority is working to attract national and international biopharmaceutical companies to locate at Insight Park to be near UM researchers and license UM discoveries.

    “There’s a lot of opportunity at the Innovation Hub and Insight Park,” said Jim McArthur, deputy director of MDA. “We recently had a Fortune 500 company interested in locating there, and that is a great start. We try to build relationships and show the value in the locations – the skilled labor, professors and researchers. They see something here they don’t see other places.”

    The charm and convenience of a picturesque Southern town located near a major hub is part of the strategy for bringing high-tech biomedical and pharmaceutical research firms to the Innovation Hub and Insight Park.

    “Being in Oxford is a big advantage,” said Jon Maynard, executive vice president of the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation. “It’s a very nice place to live. We’re also in the greater Memphis area, so we have a metro area with an international airport, professional sports and all the amenities.”

    While recruiting companies from around the world is a reality of economic development, the Innovation Hub is also positioned to help develop local talent and keep the state’s innovators at home.

    “One of our goals is to partner with local companies to commercialize UM discoveries,” said Walt Chambliss, director of the university’s Division of Technology Management. In addition to Soair, Chambliss cited Phytochemical Services Inc., which was founded by two UM faculty members, Mahmoud ElSohly, Ph.D., and Ikhas Khan, Ph.D., among the roster of local companies that have sprung from faculty member innovations.

    MDA also sees value in cultivating opportunities at the state’s four research universities.

    “Being involved with universities helps show companies that we’re serious about developing the markets and talent and resources they need to succeed,” said McArthur. “It helps us retain those students in Mississippi. We’re supporting co-op programs so when they graduate, there’s already a tie in with their company and they can roll in and get started.”

    Sabatier is already providing opportunities for students to gain experience and further their educations as he builds his business. “Students on campus can do curriculum practicum training here, and graduate students can get experience writing proposals, and they report to their department chairs,” he said. “Being able to work with faculty and students helps a lot. The university has the expertise I need.”

    “We send graduates with Ph.D.s in all pharmaceutical disciplines all over the world,” added David D. Allen, dean of the university’s nationally recognized School of Pharmacy. “It would be incredibly impactful to keep a number of them here and give them opportunities, which would lead to enhanced collaborative research and employment across the spectrum of workforce needs.”