November 15, 2009 (Vol. 29, No. 20)

Establishment of Life Science Cluster in This Prairie State Is Not as Far-Fetched as It Seems

Three of the 17 drugs approved by the FDA in 2007 originated in Oklahoma. Surprised? The key word is “originated.” Projects have a strong tendency to originate in Oklahoma’s laboratories but be developed elsewhere.

Alexion is a classic example. The company was formed around a project Scott Rollins, Ph.D., began at the University of Oklahoma (OU). After receiving his Ph.D. from Yale University, Dr. Rollins stayed in Connecticut and cofounded Alexion using his intellectual property, licensed from OU, to build a company that employed hundreds. When he sold it a few years ago, he says it had a market capitalization of $4 billion.

To build his second company, Selexys Pharmaceuticals, Dr. Rollins and his family came home to Oklahoma. “There’s a tremendous amount of good scientific research in Oklahoma that’s not being exploited,” Dr. Rollins says. “Oklahoma has as good—if not better—technology as any university, but there’s no way to transfer it well, and there’s a lack of venture capital and experience in biotech management” to build companies.

“There are a couple of executives here now who have actually taken products from discovery to market,” Dr. Rollins reports, but most are still learning the business aspects of biotech. Nonetheless, there are some standouts in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area, including contract manufacturer Cytovance Biologics, prosthetics developer Orthocare Innovations, fungal diagnostics developer Immuno-Mycologics, and small molecule drug developer CoMentis, which bases its Alzheimer’s research program in Oklahoma City, and SouthWest NanoTechnologies manufactures many different types of single-walled carbon nanotubes that can be functionalized for a variety of applications.

Organizations within the state have launched a long-planned, well-coordinated effort to build the infrastructure that is vital to a strong biotech cluster. They’re not trying to unseat Boston or San Diego. Instead, they are concentrating on their strengths in certain areas, such as lupus, to build pockets of deep research expertise from which entrepreneurs will emerge.

Although the biotech industry is still small in this prairie state, scientific and technical expertise is plentiful. Researchers at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF), for example, hail not only from OU, but also from such top-tier institutions as the NIH, Yale, Case Western Reserve, Emory University, and the University of Uppsala.

Discoveries at OMRF include the 2008 announcement of 14 genes associated with lupus, four of which were in junk DNA. That discovery was part of a program, involving 150 scientists and more than 7,000 volunteers in the U.S. and Europe, to create the world’s largest lupus database.

CoMentis, in partnership with Astellas Pharma, has a drug in clinical trials that originated in OMRF’s Alzheimer’s work. OtoLogics is developing OMRF’s early work in oxidation, and the foundation currently is engaged in vaccine work with the U.S. Department of Defense for anthrax and influenza, according to Steve Prescott, M.D., OMRF president.

Likewise, a couple hours south, in Ardmore, the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation is home to about 90 Ph.D.s from 25 countries. The Noble Foundation is internationally renowned for its plant science discoveries including lignin modification for tannin production in forage grasses.

At the OU Health Sciences Center, “We have a research strategic plan that meets the need of the state and maximizes our strengths,” Joseph Ferretti, Ph.D., senior vp and provost, said. Those strengths are cancer, diabetes, infectious diseases, and vision/neuroscience research. He adds, “OU has one of the few departments of geriatric medicine in the country.”

Oklahoma City (OKC, as the natives call it) is the focus for the state’s biotech activity because of the synergy between the OU Health Sciences Center, the OU Cancer Institute (an NCI-designated cancer center), OMRF, and the Presbyterian Health Foundation (PHF) Research Park. These organizations are on adjacent campuses, so it’s easy for researchers to balance teaching and private sector concerns.

“Ten years ago, Oklahoma changed the state constitution so the University could rent lab space,” to its professors as they began to spin off companies, according to Joseph Waner, Ph.D., vp for research, professor, department of pediatrics, OU Health Sciences Center. The move was a boon to fledgling companies and spurred academic entrepreneurship.

When the benchtop is outgrown, a natural move is to the 27-acre PHF research park next door to OUHSC. The park’s goal is to “incubate the science, not the space,” Mike Anderson, Ph.D., president, explains, so companies can grow from a benchtop to a manufacturing facility and stay within the park. Founded in 1985 as part of the urban renewal of downtown Oklahoma City, construction began in the late 1990s. Currently, it houses 37 tenants in 7 buildings.

In October, Fortune magazine listed Oklahoma City as the best place in the U.S. to launch a business, citing the second-lowest median rent as well as the second-lowest foreclosure rate of any major city in the U.S., as well as a workforce in which 32% hold at least bachelor’s degrees, and a diverse local economy that has, so far, been spared the ravages of the recession.

Top-quality office space rents for $15 per square foot in the Presbyterian Health Foundation Research Park, versus $40 to $60 per square foot in other states, Dr. Rollins says. Outside the park, it ranges from about $17 to $21 per square foot. Likewise, a Class A wet lab costs $25 per square foot at that park, versus about $125 per square foot on either coast.

Cytovance Biologics technicians prepare equipment in a laboratory at the company’s headquarters.


Attracting financing and angel investors is a challenge for Oklahoma biotechs. The 15 local venture capital firms aren’t particularly risk adverse—after all, they funded similarly risky oil and gas ventures—but they don’t know the biotech industry. And, while the California and Massachusetts firms that do know biotech say good ideas will always find funding, they generally prefer to work close to home. Consequently, even Dr. Anderson admits, there is a paucity of venture capital funding.

Much of the financing comes through grants from the Presbyterian Health Foundation, the Oklahoma Center of the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST) and, for seed funding, i2E (Turning Innovation into Enterprise).

“We’re starting to see some national recognition of life sciences in OKC,” partially because of the Procure Proton Therapy Center (one of seven in the U.S.) opening a few miles north in Edmond, notes Mike Carolina, executive director of OCAST. The NIH is a significant source of research funding as well. Today, OCAST is a $22 million state agency with a return on investment to the state of 20:1. Within 10 years, Carolina predicts its investment funds will more than double. OCAST also manages the $1 billion EDGE endowment to fund science and technology projects.

OKC has undergone a major transformation in the past 30 years. No longer a gritty cow town, arts and entertainment districts are flourishing.

Researchers at OMRF are working to discover new therapeutics for Alzheimer’s disease.

Previous articleMaking Sense of Antisense and Its Rebound Potential
Next articleSpherix’ Preliminary Late-Stage Data Bodes Well for Oral Antidiabetic