At The Great Lakes Stem Cell (Innovation) Center, Researchers Anxiously Wait For Technology To Take Off

6/8/11Follow @xconomy

On the fourth floor of the TechTown science and research park in Detroit, the words “Great Lakes Stem Cell Commercialization Center” practically startle a vistor with their large, dark green lettering sprawled across a white wall.

“Yeah, we’re changing the name,” James Eliason, the center’s director, tells me.

“Really?” I ask. “Why?”

“Well, for one thing, it’s way too long,” chuckles Eliason. “Commercialization” takes up a lot of wall space. So the center plans to replace “Commercialization” with “Innovation.”

I suspect it’s not merely a cosmetic change. Commercialization implies companies are converting their technologies into revenue while innovation indicates companies are still creating those technologies. Despite years of research, money, and hype, the stem cell industry still falls squarely in the latter category.

Perhaps no one knows this better than Eliason, a professor at Wayne State University and CEO of MitoStem, a university-bred startup trying to develop pluripotent cells (which scientists can coax into any other type of cell) from sources other than human embryos.

Just three years ago, Michigan seemed on the verge of a stem cell revolution. In 2008, voters approved an amendement to the state constitution allowing taxpayers to fund research into embryonic stem cells.

A year later, WSU announced the creation of the Stem Cell Commercialization Center at TechTown. University officials envisioned the center incubating stem cell startups not only from Michigan but from around the world. And in 2010, Detroit hosted the annual World Stem Cell Summit.

Since then, the hype over stem cells has given way to economic, scientific and political realities.

Last month, University of Michigan star stem cell researcher Sean Morrison bolted the state to lead a new pediatric research initiative at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, but not before slamming groups that oppose the technology.

“There are a small number of faith-based special interest groups that are attacking relentlessly,” Morrison recently told AnnArbor.com. “Relentlessly looking for ways to block these forms of medical research most people in the country feel should be supported. They’re well-enough organized and sophisticated and have deep-enough pockets. What that means is we are constantly under attack.”

Despite initial enthusiasm a decade ago, investors are now wary of stem cell startups, preferring to see if companies like Geron and Advanced Cell Technologies succeed with their clinical trials, Eliason says.

Until then, “investors are not going to invest,” he says. “This is not like information technology. This is not like making [a smart phone application] that gets you eight times return on investment.”

The TechTown facility has progressed slowly. In February 2009, WSU boldly claimed the lab would be completed in six months and house five biotech startups spun out of the university.

Not quite.

Today, the center is still being built but seems mostly completed. Eliason is trying to raise the $3 million it will take to purchase equipment and ramp up operations.

“Our major thing is money,” he says.

But Eliason remains committed to the vision. With venture capital tight, Eliason says the facility can help researchers and startups from U-M, WSU, and Michigan State University develop their technologies so they better position themselves for funding whey they are ready.

He wants to emulate the model of Asterland. The company, which occupies the same floor in TechTown, acts as a logistics manager for drug companies, supplying them with human tissue to test their therapies.

“We can provide to researchers what they need the most” by way of services, equipment and raw materials, Eliason says. “There’s a lot of research that needs to be worked out. We can help speed up the process.”

In addition to MitoStem, the center will soon house a biotech startup founded by Martin Bluth, the new director of translational research for WSU School of Medicine’s pathology department.

Bluth says he likes what the center and university have to offer his company.

“I never had such a welcoming infrastructure as this,” Bluth says. “It’s quite remarkable.”

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