Life sciences finds growth spurtCentral Texas is known nationwide for its tech industry, quality schools and quality of life, but many in the life sciences industry say the area is also on its way to becoming a life sciences hub.

The life sciences industry includes companies involved in medical devices, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, diagnostics, and research and development. Many of these types of companies are choosing to launch, expand or grow in Austin and the surrounding suburbs.

From 2005-15, the Austin metropolitan comprising Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays, Travis and Williamson counties saw a 54.5 percent increase in the number of life science companies, according to data from the Texas Workforce Commission. Most of that growth came from medical equipment and supplies manufacturers, scientific research and development services, and medical and diagnostic laboratories.

“It’s a great area because so much of it is focused on helping people improve their quality of life and being able to effectively diagnose and treat diseases,” said John Burns, president of nonprofit BioAustin.

Life sciences finds growth spurtThe region is not yet known as a life sciences hub, such as the San Francisco Bay area, San Diego, Boston/Cambridge and Houston. But Burns said Austin has other advantages, such as a business-friendly environment.

“The Austin area sells itself. It’s a great place to live,” he said. “The cost of living is so high in San Diego and the San Francisco Bay area and Boston that this is an attractive alternative.”

One way that could help life sciences companies is capital to either grow or launch a company. But with life sciences companies, the return on investment is not always quick, Burns said.

“Typically to get a health-related product to market, whether it’s a diagnostic [test], drug or medical device, you have to do clinical trials frequently, and then you have to get FDA approval; that process can take five to 10 years,” he said.

BioAustin aims to help life sciences grow and prosper, and Burns said what would help the industry grow more is if the state offered to match federal grants.

“As we continue to grow and develop, I think we’ll start being recognized more by the big investment groups on the West Coast and New England, and they’ll start looking more seriously at helping financially the local companies grow,” Burns said.

Elisa Maldonado-Holmertz, director of development for the Texas Medical Device Alliance, said she hopes when The University of Texas Dell Medical School opens, it could open more doors in the medical technology industry.

“TMDA is still trying to be the spider in the web and connect organizations together and trying to connect more with the Dell Medical School, which also is trying to connect the community and create an optimal environment.”

Maldonado-Holmertz said she sees a bright future for the medical device community in Central Texas, even if the growth has been slow. She said her hope is the Dell Medical School will help germinate interest.

“Overall we’re all very positive and optimistic, but it’s been a long time waiting for it to pop here,” she said.

North Austin-based Spot On Sciences created portable blood sample-collection devices used primarily for research purposes throughout the world. North Austin-based Spot On Sciences created portable blood sample-collection devices used primarily for research purposes throughout the world.[/caption]

Spot On Sciences

Inspired by her mother who lives in rural Missouri, Jeanette Hill sought to create a medical device that would make it easier for people to get a blood test.

She started Spot On Sciences in 2010 in North Austin. The company makes HemaSpot blood sample-collection devices for testing and research. The devices are portable, so they may be used anywhere in the world, she said.

Hill developed the devices in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which develops emerging technologies for the military.

“This would be ideal for something like Zika [virus] where you need to collect samples from a lot of people to test,” she said. “We have them all over Africa and all over the world right now doing studies.”

HemaSpot is available for research purposes, but Hill said she hopes by early 2017 anyone could buy one at retail locations or doctors’ offices.

Spot On has five full-time and five part-time employees, and Hill said they usually have several interns from Austin Community College and The University of Texas working on projects and gaining lab experience.

“It’s very hands-on so they get really good training, and it’s great for their resume,” she said.

Working in Austin, Hill said entrepreneurs have a lot of support. She also has not had to seek funding from investors because Spot On has received federal Small Business Innovation Research grants and funding from DARPA and other organizations.

“The entrepreneur spirit in Austin has been fantastic,” she said. “We always have a lot of support.”

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