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UB engineer’s research helps two biotech startups take flight

Jonathan Lovell is an engineer by training, not an entrepreneur.

He came to the University at Buffalo, where he is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, after finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Toronto four years ago.

However, in the short time since Lovell arrived on campus, his research has helped lead to the creation of two promising biotech companies. Lovell is a co-founder of both.

One, Abcombi Biosciences, which boosts access to vaccines and allows the vaccines to work more efficiently, was accepted into the state’s Start-Up NY tax-free zone program.

The company has several products in the pipeline and focuses on diseases, such as pneumonia, for which it’s hard to make a vaccine because the bacteria are evolving.

The second company, POP Biotechnologies, uses nanomedicine to find a more reliable way to deliver anti-cancer drugs to tumors. The nano-balloons themselves aren’t new. But POP’s innovation is to put a small amount of a light-activated compound inside the nano-balloon and, once it is delivered into a tumor, to shine a laser on the nano-balloon, triggering it to open up and release the anti-cancer drugs.

POP Biotechnologies won a competition for businesses founded by UB students and was one of two companies that received a $100,000 prize when AOL founder Steve Case came to town on his Rise of the Rest tour last fall.

Lovell admits with self-deprecation that he didn’t speak during the company’s pitch to Case and the other judges, but he was on stage with his co-founders.

“I was there in case there were any technical questions that came up,” said Lovell, who lives in Niagara Falls, Ont., with his three children and his partner, Chabriol Colebatch, who works at Brock University in St. Catharines.

The entrepreneurial activity of Lovell, who was born in British Columbia and grew up in Ottawa, is an example of what this region is trying to achieve as its government, academic and business institutions pump hundreds of millions of dollars into life sciences research.

The goal is to leverage that investment and the area’s brainpower to create life-saving drugs and game-changing medical devices – and the jobs and economic impact that come from producing them in Buffalo Niagara.

Q: Was starting, or joining, a company always a priority of yours?

A: When I first started here, a lot of my effort was just focused on adapting to being an assistant professor, which is quite different from being a Ph.D. student. You need to run a lab, you need to develop, and teach courses. You need to interact with graduate students, to give them their research projects.

So being an entrepreneur and contributing to the local economy never really was on my to-do list. But I think it becomes apparent once you get a technology in this life-science field, if your technology seems promising, to get it into the clinic it just absolutely requires commercialization. There’s no ambiguity about that.

Q: What are the differences between the skills a scientist needs and those an entrepreneur needs?

A: I feel in some ways to become a successful entrepreneur, at a certain point in time it’s best if you can deliver what you promised to do. So it’s a little bit different from science, where research can just take a mind of its own, and that’s fine.

Q: And the different skill sets don’t necessarily translate, right? Someone can come up with a revolutionary innovation, but struggle to bring that idea from the lab bench to market?

A: That’s true. To be an entrepreneur, I think you need to be able to communicate your ideas clearly. And have better management skills. I think in academia, university scientists, we don’t have to have great social skills. At least I don’t. [Laughs.] You don’t necessarily need to be able to convey your ideas very clearly. Because your audience, when you publish your research, is experts in the field. Whereas in the business world you really need to convey your ideas in a short time, with very little jargon, so people can actually understand what you’re trying to do.

Q: What are the obstacles to getting a startup company off the ground?

A: I think a biotech startup is slightly different, because with other startups, you’re able to just go and make your product and sell your product. But the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) is different. So what I’ve been finding is there is a lot more importance on developing a sound business plan, because you do need investors.

You want to also develop an operations plan. So how would you do your hiring? How is your company going to be looking in one or two years time? Where will your company be located? What’s the lab going to look like?

From my perspective, a lot of it is just learning the basics of having a vision, a concrete vision for the companies. Other obstacles, I found fundraising has been kind of difficult. Partially because of the risk involved with biotech, and the large amount of money required to advance a drug to market, (it) makes biotech a bit of a risky investment. So finding the right investors has been tricky as well.

Q: Is Buffalo poised to be a biotech hub?

A: Yeah, I feel that there’s definitely the possibility. I feel that this new deal with Athenex is potentially a game-changer, if you think about how that’s going to bring a lot of talent into this area.

There is a base here with Life Technologies, and the number one biotech employer in the region, it’s on Grand Island as well, Fresenius Kabi (formerly APP Pharmaceuticals). So there is some industrial groundwork there. And then certainly what UB and Roswell Park are doing, they’re really pouring a lot of effort into this. So those types of initiatives are extremely helpful.

I think it’s not trivial to make your city into a biotech hub, it’s not something that’s super easy to do. But I get the feeling that Buffalo’s definitely supporting that and I think I’d say I think there’s a chance that could work.

Q: The region is waiting for startup companies like yours to produce a drug or a medical device that will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, create jobs and change the lives of millions of patients. And to keep the fruits of that discovery in Buffalo. Are those realistic goals?

A: I think they are. I think the problem is it requires a lot of investment. To bring a drug to market costs from $100 million to $1 billion to go through a typical clinical trial process. That’s a lot of money to be investing.

But I feel that vision can become a reality. I think it takes some trial and error. But I think it’s a worthy goal of pursuing. I think the groundwork is here to make that a reality.