A Look at the Biosciences Industry in Alabama

Peggy Sammon, CEO, GeneCapture Inc. and Chair, BIO Alabama


BIO Alabama is the trade association that represents the biosciences industry across the state. This includes life sciences and biotech from the institutional and industrial sectors. In March, several representatives of BIO Alabama met with state representatives, state senators and the governor’s office in Montgomery to report on the state of the industry.

The biosciences support jobs in research, manufacturing, distribution and clinical services. Companies and institutions are making advances in genetic engineering, clinical genome analyses, medical device design and manufacture and bio-materials. Clinical applications include pharmaceutical and supplement manufacture and distribution, and many health-related disease solutions and research. We reported to the Legislature that the industry was growing, greater amounts of research funding were entering the state, and a strong level of collaboration was occurring throughout the research institutions. 

Research labs are tackling high impact areas, such as cancer drug therapies, protein engineering, neurodegenerative diseases, implant bio-materials and big data solutions. Applied research is active in health analytics, a growing field that promises to reduce health costs by analyzing rates of disease, behaviors towards therapies and trends developing in urban and rural areas.

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Commercial companies in Alabama are manufacturing drugs and supplements, producing drug delivery products, and designing new medical devices and diagnostic tools.  The services sector includes clinical design studies, precision medicine, custom therapies, personalized medicines, health IT, drug design, diagnostics, genome lab services and the state’s first genome clinic.

Today it is possible to enter the start-up field in biosciences without a huge investment. Many applications are available using DNA tools, wearables, apps and databases that are easy to procure. The field is ripe for innovation from products to physician services. Start-up funding is available from multiple angel investment groups, Alabama Launchpad, university innovation grants, venture capital and SBIR and STTR funding. BIO Alabama is connecting the bioscience ecosystem to smooth the access to capital and mentors.

Legislators were eager to hear about new discoveries and growing exports from the bioscience field. 

Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida have very established bioscience trade associations and the benefit of industry consolidation around large cities. Alabama has more of a challenge in that the bioscience industry is spread throughout the state with several growing centers. This is an indication of the health of the industry but it makes it more difficult to gain collaborations and build cluster traction. That’s where BIO Alabama comes in — developing and encouraging networks to accelerate new business ventures.

There are six primary bioscience centers in the state: 

1. Birmingham is the most mature with top research centers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (precision medicine, oncology, drug discovery and genetic studies) and Southern Research (infectious disease, drug development, neuro-degenerative disease). A vibrant start-up culture exists with funding available from several capital networks and established venture groups. Start-ups are launched at the Commercialization Accelerator at UAB’s Harbert Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Innovation Depot and others. Commercial firms in Birmingham include Evonik, Avanti Polar Lipids, Biohorizons Implant Systems and Oxford Pharmaceuticals.

2. Huntsville is home to HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, a public-private partnership that brings research (genetics, genomics, bio-informatics) and over 35 for-profit companies (precision medicine, diagnostics, drug discovery, biotech services) together. Additionally Nektar operates a facility supporting drug development with new chemistry approaches. The University of Alabama in Huntsville is exploring plant and protein sciences and Alabama A&M is active in plant research. NASA’s operation at the Marshall Space Flight Center has funded biotech experiments and research on the International Space Station — one of the U.S. National Labs.

3. The Auburn-Opelika area is a hot bed of research from Auburn University, specializing in genetics, biomaterials and drug discovery, along with corporate and manufacturing facilities for SiO2 (medical products), Baxter (dialyzer production), Vitruvias Therapeutics (injectables) and Pharmavite (high quality vitamins).

4. The Montgomery area is represented by two universities, Tuskegee and Alabama State, as well as commercial endeavors Steris (medical equipment manufacturer) and Kowa Pharmaceuticals (pharma products).

5. In Tuscaloosa, the University of Alabama is active in drug discovery and protein engineering, as well as new activity in health IT.

6. Mobile is represented by the University of South Alabama where fusion protein therapeutics and personalized medicine are being researched and spin offs are encouraged through the USA Coastal Innovation Hub, a high-tech business incubator. Mobile is also a landing spot for new businesses at the Innovation PortAL, a public-private entity for early seed and start-up opportunities. Swift Biotechnology, located at USA’s Mitchell Cancer Institute, is developing early detection techniques for cancer diagnosis.

BIO Alabama supports Southeast BIO (SEBIO) and Southeast Medical Device Association (SEMDA), organizations that help build bridges to industry and research in our region.

The biosciences are thriving in Alabama. We are in the top 20 percent of the country for bioscience share of total R&D expenditures. Start-ups are popping up across the state. New intellectual property is coming from the institutions and industry is growing and hiring graduates from our state institutions. The bioscience sector is gaining critical mass and attracting top researchers and new industry to the state. State legislators see this industry as a high value and growing contributor to the state economy.

Click here to learn more about writer Peggy Sammon and Huntsville's GeneCapture Inc.

Text by By Peggy Sammon // CEO, GeneCapture Inc. // Chair, BIO Alabama

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