Written by Scott Wartman
COVINGTON A building that more than 100 years ago housed a livery and then a beer hall now houses a front line in the search for a cancer cure.
U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Garrison, on Wednesday toured the expanded bioLOGIC life sciences business accelerator in Covington and Bexion Pharmaceutical Company which is housed there.
Bexion’s staff of six hopes to start human trials by the end of the year on a drug designed to trick cancer cells into killing themselves without damaging healthy tissue. BioLOGIC recently opened a $1 million, 7,500-foot expansion of its space in a 150-year-old building on Russell Street where it has operated since 2009.
Massie told Bexion‘s CEO Ray Takigiku the tour of the facility inspired him.
“The mission they’re on could change the world, and that’s always exciting,” Massie said. “I mean they’re not making a faster ink jet printer here. They’re working on a cure for cancer.” Leaders with bioLOGIC and Bexion impressed upon Massie the importance of federal Small Business Innovation Research grants, of which Bexion has received $2 million. The State of Kentucky has matched $1 million. Bexion has used this money to raise a lot more in private capital, company officials told Massie.
Bexion and bioLOGIC represent the type of jobs local leaders want to attract. The use of the 150-year-old building to develop life science companies serves as a good example of how to re-use an old building, said former Covington Mayor Chuck Scheper, who chairs Bexion’s board. BioLOGIC houses 14 separate companies that employ a total of about 40 people. It holds millions of dollars worth of lab equipment tech companies can use and share that they would not otherwise be able to afford.
“When you see the space, you’ll be amazed at how cool the space is,” Scheper said. “It is the best re-purposing of a building that I’ve seen anywhere. The space used to be an old beer hall. In fact, there’s still writing on one of the walls, “Beer 15 cents.”
The space bioLOGIC operates out of reminded Massie of the building his tech company worked out of near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he graduated. Northern Kentucky can have the same appeal to tech companies MIT has, Massie said.
“I think we need to get the message out to people outside this area that you can do high-tech start-up here in Kentucky,” Massie said. “All the ingredients are here. This is exactly what I saw one block from MIT. It feels exactly the same.”
A growing business
The field of life sciences, which include pharmaceuticals and biotech companies, appears poised for continued growth, and local leaders hope to take advantage of that.
Global revenues have increased 29 percent between 2007-2011, according to the 2013 Global Life Sciences Outlook report by the consulting agency Deloitte. An aging population with increasing chronic disease will only further increase demand, the report states.
“The demand for and use of preventive drugs and medical devices and other assisted technologies like e-health and mobile health are increasing as a result,” the Deloitte report states.
The success of bioLOGIC will help sell Northern Kentucky to other high-tech start-ups, said Dan Tobertge, executive director with the Tri-County Economic Development Corporation.
“Life science is a growing field,” Tobergte said. “We need to take advantage of that. What they’ve done in terms of real estate development in Covington is phenomenal. Beyond that, it has energized the life science industry in Northern Kentucky.”
The Catalytic Development Funding Corp. of Northern Kentucky wants to encourage a diverse housing stock and make the area attractive for life science companies like bioLOGIC and Bexion, said Jeanne Schroer, executive director of the funding group. The fund invests in real estate in the river cities of Northern Kentucky to spur economic development.
“These are smaller companies that research shows are likely to grow,” Schroer said. “Also, the types of employees they attract are often employees that like to live in an urban setting and work in an urban setting.”
Hope for treatment of cancer
But the excitement in the building on Russell Street goes beyond economic development. The drug Bexion is testing has shown efficacy on many forms of cancer by attacking something common in cancer cells, said Scheper. He survived stage 4 non-Hodgkins lymphoma in the early 1990s at a time when doctors thought he couldn’t be cured.
“I think there’s great potential with this drug, and we all pray it has the kind of impact we hope for in the treatment of this terrible disease,” Scheper said.
Bexion must get Food and Drug Administration approval for the drug but has a staff well positioned to make it through the regulatory hoops, Scheper said. Former FDA director Lester Crawford sits on Bexion’s board.
“It’s a little company in Covington, Ky., but it’s got a very strong team of scientists and supporters,” Scheper said. “We hope to put Covington on the map.”