Startups in biotechnology are focused on moving their technology forward, which often requires research support.
Even a startup that has found lab space and enough funding to make progress can need that extra help, either because they don’t have the specific, niche piece of equipment or because they don’t have a team member with expertise in a particular experimental technique. It’s not feasible for startups to purchase every piece of equipment they will ever use nor to hire employees with prior experience using all those pieces of equipment. Instead, it can make much more financial sense to outsource the work in some fashion.
Research support can come in many forms, including university core facilities, contract research organizations, and more. Anything that assists researchers with their laboratory work, making it more efficient, cheaper, or more effective is research support. However, these resources can be difficult to find as they often must be local, and even if they are cheaper than doing something in-house, they can still be quite expensive when compared to a startup’s overall budget.
Choosing the best research support services or resources is important for ensuring the success of a new technology. Read on to learn more about different types of research support resources, especially in the Southern California area.
Most universities have pieces of equipment that are shared among different departments, either because they are expensive and it doesn’t make sense for every professor to have their own, or because they require niche expertise to run, or both. Depending on the type of equipment and the demand for it within the university, it may become part of a core facility. University core facilities primarily serve the school’s own faculty and often are not allowed to profit from their activities. However, they are generally expected to maintain as close to break-even as possible. If there is excess capacity on their instruments, these facilities may turn to local industry to purchase time on the machines.
Every university runs things differently, and every individual core facility--even within the same university--does things their own way, too. In general, this means that the best way for industry to work with a core facility is to find the direct contact information for a local core director and ask what the process is to use their services. Some core facilities post this information clearly on their website, some don’t. Additionally, some core facilities are more amenable to working with industry than others. Because their primary customers are their own institution’s faculty, if an instrument becomes busy it can delay when a company gets a chance to use it. Therefore, getting to know the practices of multiple local core facilities is a great idea before choosing which one to work with. The facility that charges the least may not be the best option.
Because flow cytometry deals with measuring and sometimes sorting living cells, proximity is a key factor for these core facilities. Most universities that participate in cell biology research will have at least one flow cytometer and cell sorter, if not more. Different cell types are more or less sensitive to transportation, which can add to the necessity to find a local flow cytometry core facility.
In Southern California the following universities have flow cytometry cores that are available for industry use: UC Irvine, UC Los Angeles, University of Sourthern California, UC San Diego, and UC Riverside. Some research institutes may also have flow cytometers available.
Mass spectrometry is used to determine the identity of molecules in a sample by measuring their molecular weights. These weights can be used to identify different molecules in a mixture, to see whether there are impurities, or to analyze a particular protein, among other functions.
Mass spectrometers themselves are expensive and require significant training to learn how to run and maintain. Therefore, unless a startup will be using a mass spec frequently, finding a local core facility can be a great option. Because the samples run on mass specs are not living cells, companies can usually mail their samples out to the facility of their choosing regardless of location. However, it’s still convenient to have a local mass spec for last-minute samples. In Southern California most of the major research universities have core facilities that serve companies as well as their faculty.
Contract Research Organizations, or CROs, are companies that perform experiments on behalf of other companies and researchers. They do not take ownership of the technology they handle. CROs specialize in specific and generally expensive types of research that cost too much for R&D departments to do in-house. This can range from pre-clinical work such as toxicology studies and in vitro experiments all the way up to clinical studies themselves. Because they work with many different companies, CROs can also be fantastic sources of information and expertise for startups who may be developing their first FDA-regulated technology. A CRO that has worked with many such companies may have great advice in regards to experimental design, among other topics.
CROs can be excellent partners for biotech startups, so long as the startups choose the right ones and collaborate with them effectively.
🔬 Related: How to Choose the Right CRO
Animal research and independent research review boards are two examples of CROs that biotech startups commonly utilize:
Housing animals for research is an expensive, labor-intensive, and highly regulated activity that also requires a lot of space. Considering that most biotech companies will only perform animal research temporarily, few build their own vivariums unless they are very large, indeed. Thus, startups must work with existing vivarium facilities.
Both university and commercial vivariums exist, though it can be difficult for companies to work with university facilities. In contrast to flow cytometry, vivariums do not always have to be located in close proximity to a startup in order to be utilized. However, there are cases in which it is especially beneficial to have them nearby. Therefore, vivarium facilities are built near biotech clusters more often as time goes on. In Southern California there are a number of vivariums in the region, ranging from Northern LA County to San Diego.
🔬 Related: Vivariums in Southern California
Institutional Review Boards, or IRBs, are in charge of determining whether the risk to human participants in a research study is acceptable. They review the researcher’s plans for safety and ethics, and make sure that correct documentation is kept. The confidentiality of patient information is paramount in human studies, so IRBs also determine whether the research plan has sufficiently accounted for patient privacy.
Any time a study includes human participants, the researcher is required to work with an IRB. Accredited institutions such as universities have their own IRBs, but companies must either find or form their own. Startups almost always pay an independent IRB to review their protocols.
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