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Nicklaus: St. Louis biotech positions itself to lead when next pandemic hits

Nicklaus: St. Louis biotech positions itself to lead when next pandemic hits

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As scientists around the world battle COVID-19, a few people in St. Louis are also thinking about future pandemics.

An Israeli company has made St. Louis a testing ground for a smartphone app that tracks the vital signs of inner-city and rural residents who are vulnerable to infections like the novel coronavirus. Workers in the BioSTL building in the Central West End are wearing bluetooth tags to test a contact tracing app.

BioSTL, a trade organization for the life-sciences industry, hopes to attract many similar pandemic-related innovations to St. Louis with a $2.96 million federal grant it received last month.

The money, the largest of several grants the group has won in recent years, will establish the Center for National Pandemic Resiliency in Biosciences. It will set out to develop — and build businesses around — any technology that can predict, monitor, treat or prevent a widespread disease outbreak.

The Commerce Department, which awarded the grant through its Economic Development Administration, estimates that the center will create 125 jobs and attract $20 million in private investment.

Donn Rubin, president of BioSTL, thinks the impact could be even greater over time. “We think it will help St. Louis be a magnet to global innovators who are developing technology in the pandemic resiliency space,” he said.

The current pandemic has caused many biotechnology entrepreneurs to shift their focus to COVID-19. In St. Louis, Precision Virologics and VaxNewMo had been working on other diseases and are now developing coronavirus vaccines. Confluence Life Sciences is retooling an arthritis drug as a potential COVID-19 treatment.

All three of those firms received early support from BioSTL’s investment arm, BioGenerator. Rubin believes the Commerce Department was impressed by the organization’s track record of building businesses here and attracting firms from elsewhere.

The grant comes from $1.5 billion allocated in last year’s federal relief aid to help communities recover from COVID-19. Most other grants, such as $3.2 million that St. Louis Development Corp. received in August for a small-business loan fund, have been strictly about economic recovery.

BioSTL decided to propose something that would boost both the local economy and the nation’s ability to fight pandemics.

The grant includes money to study the feasibility of building more lab space here and building a scale-up biologics manufacturing plant, two projects that have been long-term goals for St. Louis’ growing biotech industry.

“This center is part of a strategy that positions St. Louis as a leader between the coasts in an important emerging area,” Rubin said.

He said BioSTL expects to name a director for the resiliency center in the next few months, then start reaching out to researchers in the Midwest and beyond who are working on pandemic-related projects.

Soon after the grant announcement, BioSTL heard from someone who’s developing technology for coordinating mass vaccination efforts — a glaring need that has emerged this year.

The call confirmed for Rubin that researchers are working to address almost every aspect of the pandemic, but that many of them need help turning their ideas into viable businesses. That’s what BioSTL and BioGenerator have done for local entrepreneurs for the better part of two decades.

By being branded a national center for pandemic-related work, Rubin hopes to lure many more firms here.

“This puts a marker down that St. Louis is developing unique capabilities,” he said. “We can be valuable to any entrepreneur with an eye on this market.”

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