Walking through the Marine Biotechnology Center of North Carolina (MARBIONC) on the UNCW Crest Research Park campus reminds me why I work in economic and community development, not science. Rented lab space is filled with test tubes and beakers containing colorful liquids; obscure samples of sea water and organisms line locked cabinets, waiting for their turns to be tested; and lab-coat clad scientists record streams of data and discuss homogenizing cultures, which is not my area of expertise. But what I do understand well is the potential for business development that lies before me.
If you aren’t familiar with marine biotechnology, let me describe it in layman’s terms: It is the use of marine organisms to create products, technologies and processes that will benefit society. Marine biotech uses the organisms at the whole-cell or molecular level in an attempt to develop products that can help do amazing things like combat cystic fibrosis, deliver drugs more efficiently, stimulate nerve cell growth … and innumerable other possibilities. It’s an industry perfectly suited for our region for obvious reasons, which is why MARBIONC is the newest addition to UNCW’s CREST Research Park. The 69,000-square-foot state-of-the-art research facility, located off Masonboro Loop Road, is a $30 million public/private business venture that opened in early 2013. The venture was funded with federal and state money, a first-of-its-kind step to help build an almost nonexistent industry. While risky, the building is an investment in the future of North Carolina and in UNCW students, who get internships with companies located there. It’s a risk that could pay enormous dividends.
I’d visited the facility a couple times before because I wanted to become more familiar with its mission to stimulate economic development through the discovery, development and marketing of new products and technologies. MARBIONC boasted a strong start its first year, with four businesses using the building. One tenant still on site is NextGlass, which rented lab space to test 7,000 bottles of wine for its wine-pairing mobile app, showing that the center’s labs can branch beyond marine biotech. Part of the attraction of the MARBIONC building to potential leasers is its core facilities, which contain expensive analytical tools. In addition, tenants can run many samples on site, instead of having to send samples away and await results. They also have access to UNCW personnel who can help analyze data.
While it seems that the science behind the discoveries would be the most difficult aspect, other hurdles arise that could limit the effectiveness of the center. Director Dan Baden told our group that they have three business challenges: monetizing what they do, having lab space leased on a regular basis, and succeeding in technology transfer and marketing … namely, having potential products but no company to produce and deliver them to market. MARBIONC scientists use a three-step process to try to guide a product from the marine environment to the marketplace:
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