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Capturing potential of early stage firms in Greater Lehigh Valley and Pa.

The life sciences industry in the Greater Lehigh Valley and throughout Pennsylvania produces medical breakthrough products benefiting not just those who live and work in the region but throughout the world, giving the state’s economy a boost in the process.

Experts in the life sciences industry expounded upon this notion as part of a recent media tour of the region’s various medical companies, hosted by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

With high-tech manufacturing facilities, favorable distribution hubs and an innovative approach to research and development, the life sciences industry is bound for continued, sustainable growth and expansion.

Many of these health care breakthroughs and life-saving technologies are bought to market by companies backed by the Life Sciences Greenhouses, a group of organizations in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia.

While the life sciences industry in the U.S. as a whole is well-known for its abilities to innovate, other nations better support it, experts said.

“As good as we are at innovating products, Europe is more permissive for early stage developments,” said Mel Billingsley, president and CEO of Life Sciences Greenhouse of Central Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. “We [the Greenhouse] only support the high-growth companies, but also high risk. We vet companies that are ultimately going to be high growth.”

Criteria include companies with markets that have an emergent need, appropriate management structure and protected technology, Billingsley said.

These agencies provide up to $1.5 million for the early stages of capital in these investments, Billingsley said.

One of the first companies that Life Sciences Greenhouse of Central Pennsylvania invested in was Saladax Biomedical at Ben Franklin TechVentures, an incubator/post-incubator in Bethlehem. Saladax created a rapid diagnostic tool that optimizes chemotherapy, a breakthrough product.

Billingsley said his organization provided the seed money for the initiative and funding from other investors. Then, the Central Pennsylvania Greenhouse attracted the attention of its partners in China, which invested $25 million in the organization to help Saladax bring the product to market.

“We were very lucky to get in touch and introduced to Life Sciences Greenhouse,” said Adrienne Choma, co-founder, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Saladax. “They invested a good amount of money to get us off the ground.”

At the time of the investment, Choma was president and CEO of Saladax. Kevin Harter, now president and CEO of Saladax, previously worked for Life Sciences Greenhouse and proved instrumental in helping the company achieve a strategic direction and growth, Choma said.

“We couldn’t have gotten off the ground without their support,” Choma said. “I think they’ve provided a good return on our investment. Our business is more global, but we do work with local colleges and oncologists to get their input.”

Ben Franklin Technology Partners, a nonprofit agency in Bethlehem, also is a top player in the funding field for life sciences companies and provided Saladax with more than $300,000 in initial seed funding, plus space for the biotechnology company to grow at TechVentures with lab facilities and office space.

“The Ben Franklin Technology Partners is among the most prolific seed-funding resources in Pennsylvania in the life sciences,” said Joe Lane, vice president of enterprise development for the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Since 1987, Ben Franklin Northeast has invested $11,9 million in 69 life sciences companies, creating a total of 2,679 jobs and retaining 904 more jobs, Lane said.

Saladax started in 2004 with two founders and now employs 43 people, with about 35 in Bethlehem, Choma said. It holds 82 international patents and raised more than $43 million in additional equity funding.

The three Greenhouse agencies are in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and have funded 197 companies and projects, Billingsley said.

“Early stage investment is not about pure job creation,” Billingsley said. “If you are a good investor, you want them [the firms] to be as lean as possible, but when they do grow, they grow fast and those jobs pay a lot.”

Most of the innovations that life sciences companies create touch human health in some form or another, and Billingsley noted that more pharmaceutical businesses can be found here, rather than in California and other states.

It’s easy to see that without agencies that take bold steps to invest in these early stage firms, their ability to grow is stifled. Hopefully, we can see continued growth and expansion for these companies that touch human lives each and every day.


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