Can Austin lead bioscience industry to collaborative, open future?

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Organizers of a life sciences hackathon this weekend hope the collaborative spirit of Austin’s tech culture will translate to the city’s growing bioscience industry and help push companies toward sharing tools and data.

Biotech and life sciences companies are very siloed — they like to keep their work to themselves — because they might invest millions of dollars into research and development over a period of years or decades, with an eye on profits.

But advocates of “open science” say more collaboration will lead to faster advancement and better health outcomes in the long run.

“It starts with bringing people together in events and formats that are not traditional and pushing the challenges there,” said Sarah Sharif, founder and CEO of Experimental Civics and one of the hackathon’s organizers.

LifeSciHack, which starts Friday evening and runs through Sunday, is a step toward a more open future, organizers say.

Hackathons, a staple of Austin’s tech scene, bring together dozens of researchers, scientists and programmers to collaborate on solutions to problems. Sharif calls it a “designed sprint,” the first in the city focused on life sciences. In this case, there are four focus areas, including big data.

Around 70 people will be at WeWork at the Domain for three days, working together to figure out how the bioscience industry can share information and tools.

Suliman Sharif, an informatics scientist and Sarah’s brother, helped come up with the hackathon idea, too. Unlike major bioscience hubs like Boston, Seattle and San Diego, he said, central Texas has a chance to build its own life sciences ecosystem on a foundation of open science.

“I feel like in Austin, it has more opportunity,” he said. “Since we are just on the cusp of this growing industry, we can kind of lead it.”

That might not have been true even a few years ago.

When Austin Community College opened its Bioscience Incubator two years ago this week, there wasn’t much, if any, leasable lab space available in the city for small companies to develop ideas. It was a big risk, investing millions of dollars in equipment for an industry that the school wasn’t sure would grow up around it.

“We weren’t sure we were going to have any companies interested in leasing space here,” said Nancy Lyon, the incubator’s coordinator and operations manager.

But startups were eager for the space and the equipment that allowed them to pour grant money into the science instead of microscopes, and today the incubator is booming. Fifteen companies lease space there, with two more in talks to move in, Lyon said. Three companies have already moved on. Around 40 companies have sought to work there, she added, but they have to be selective in who they accept.

Celling Biosciences leases space there, using parts of the lab for its stem cell research. The company uses the cells during surgery to help bone and cartilage heal faster, Celling laboratory manager David Blackwell said.

He’s seen a lot of growth in Austin’s bioscience industry since Celling was founded 15 years ago, but where the industry goes from here, he said, is up in the air.

“It’s going to take an industry commitment to bring companies to Austin,” Blackwell said. “But once they get established, we definitely have the workforce, the training programs to maintain a technical workforce like that.”

The Austin area, spurred by new growth surrounding the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School, is now home to more than 240 bioscience companies, according to the Austin Chamber of Commerce, employing some 15,000 workers. 

Blackwell said the industry could certainly benefit from being more open and more willing to share information and resources, but he doesn’t see that happening with potentially millions of dollars on the line with every new discovery.

“I just don’t think it’s going to happen in the United States any time soon,” he said, “simply because we’re a free market economy.”

The Sharifs see that hurdle, too, but they draw a distinction between the discoveries themselves and the tools used to make them.

If the tools — the technology, the data — are more available to more people, it will only lead to more discoveries that will push health care forward.

“We’re kind of on this cusp of a revolution in science,” Suliman Sharif said. Austin, he thinks, can be on the front lines.

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