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Taking Care of (Bio) Business

Margaret Wagner Dahl and the Georgia BioBusiness Center nurture bioscience startup companies, taking UGA research from laboratory to industry

Allyson Mann (MA '92)

UGA entomology and biochemistry professor Mike Adang had a “Eureka!” moment in the fall of 2003. Adang, one of the world’s experts on Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)—a leading biopesticide—was testing a new protein when he and his lab team encountered an unexpected result. He had expected the new protein to block the effects of Bt, but instead it enhanced them. When the new protein was added to Bt—an environmentally friendly but expensive alternative to chemical pesticides—less Bt was needed to achieve even better results. Right then, Adang knew he’d identified a substance with commercial potential.

Although that moment was a surprise to Adang, there is perhaps one person who saw it coming—Margaret Wagner Dahl, UGA’s director of research, development and technology alliances. Dahl oversees the Georgia BioBusiness Center (GBBC), an incubator program founded in 2001 that nurtures bioscience startup companies associated with UGA research. Adang was on Dahl’s radar long before his “Eureka!” moment came along; she was familiar with his research and knew there was potential for commercial success—when the time was right.

“The worst thing you can do is push companies through an incubator and out too soon,” says Dahl, who came to UGA in 1999 after serving as operations director at the Austin Technology Incubator, a program of the University of Texas. “It’s better to start fewer companies and know you’ve done all you can to stabilize them successfully.”

To that end, Dahl has instituted a rigorous, three-year program at GBBC. Companies are evaluated from every angle—market opportunity, industry research, management experience, financial projections, intellectual property, job creation—to ensure that they can build a solid foundation. Resident companies, who have met the admission criteria, are housed at either the GBBC facility or the Edgar L. Rhodes Center, both located on UGA’s South Campus. Venture lab companies are in the early stages of development; their potential is still being assessed. Companies that do not meet residency criteria but have a substantial relationship to UGA—through intellectual property, sponsored research or faculty tie—are classified as affiliate.

Adang had grant support from the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Georgia Research Alliance for his research on Bt, but he was looking for an opportunity to be closely involved with the biotechnology industry. “I really like to do things that are useful,” says Adang, who began his career in 1976 as a graduate student searching for non-chemical alternatives for pest control. “It’s one of the things that drives me.”

Adang’s discovery—known as BtBooster (BtB)—is the kind of product he’s been working toward for nearly 30 years. BtB increases the efficacy of Bt, reducing the individual user’s costs, and also extends the range of insects that Bt works against. And by improving this non-chemical alternative to pesticides, BtB can reduce the amount of pesticides used. Its potential includes improving crop yields, reducing deforestation, saving lives, reducing environmental impact, and generating economic ­benefits through jobs created.

InsectiGen, the company formed by Adang in 2003, earned a profit through its contract research service and filed taxes during 2004. The company is currently negotiating contracts to manufacture BtB. And the key to their success thus far, according to Adang, is the support they’ve received from Dahl and GBBC—meeting rooms, equipment, startup projections, and financial assistance that allowed them to hire Robert Ligon, a 28-year business veteran, to write the company’s business plan.

“We couldn’t have gotten off the ground without GBBC support,” says Adang, who hopes to open the first ­InsectiGen lab in GBBC facilities later this year.

A passion for helping scientists turn academic research into viable commercial products is something Dahl discovered in the 1980s while selling medical equipment in Ireland. A ­native of Tacoma, Wash., Dahl attended the National University of Ireland-St. Patrick’s College, where she studied sociology and geography. She stayed in Ireland 13 years, launching startup companies in VCR sales and fiber optic endoscopes.

A stint working in sales and marketing for multinational European pharmaceutical and medical equipment firms led to her “Eureka!” moment: A researcher she knew in Dublin had ­developed a strain in mouse monoclonal antibodies that would interface with the work of a Galway-based scientist. She put the Dublin scientist in a car and drove three hours to Galway, where she stood in the concrete shell of a yet-to-be-refurbished incubator and watched the two scientists sketch graphs in condensation formed on a window. At that moment, Dahl had found her calling.

In 1988, Dahl returned to the U.S. and a position at the University of ­Washington, where she oversaw intellectual property negotiations, policy decisions, and technology licensing for faculty involved in biotech startup ­ventures as well as large pharmaceutical companies. There she met Karen ­Holbrook, who became provost at UGA in 1998 and lured Dahl to Georgia the next year. One of the reasons Dahl chose UGA over Cornell—which was also recruiting her—was the mindset at UGA.

“The UGA research enterprise is steeped in the basic research tradition,” she says. “But they’re not afraid to ­engage in applied work.”

Another was the network of resources made available through the Georgia Research Alliance, a private, nonprofit corporation founded to capitalize on academic research for economic gain in Georgia. GRA provides access to ­resources at other University System of Georgia institutions as well as providing incentives—through the Eminent Scholars program—that help lure top faculty to UGA. Steve Dalton, who is UGA’s Eminent Scholar in molecular cell biology as well as a Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Scientist, is an advisor/collaborator with Bresagen/Novocell, a GBBC company developing cell-based therapies to cure diseases including diabetes. Clifton Baile, UGA’s Eminent Scholar in agricultural biotechnology, is InsectiGen’s COO.

Dahl identifies GBBC companies in a variety of ways—through GRA, through applications, through faculty members, or friends of faculty. She reviews about 20 business plans a year and in some cases cultivates relationships with companies that are in an embryonic state but show potential. Oncose, for example, is an affiliate company that has not ­secured funding yet but shows promise for revolutionizing the field of early ­cancer diagnostics by creating blood serum tests based on cancer-­specific tumor markers.

The stakes in the biobusiness game are high. GBBC receives support from the UGA Research Foundation (UGARF) and GRA, both of which are charged with improving Georgia’s economy. “About one third of UGA’s funding comes from the state,” says Gordhan Patel, vice president for research and associate provost, “so we have an obligation to make sure that our research benefits the economy of Georgia.”

When GBBC produces successful graduates—who have finalized product development plans, raised significant capital and outgrown GBBC space—UGARF will receive revenue based on ownership of the intellectual property ­associated with the company. That revenue will be plowed back into the research program to pay for improvements in infrastructure and equipment as well as enhanced support for faculty.

Only two of the 14 GBBC companies have graduated from the program so far, but Dahl isn’t worried. She has built a career—and the GBBC—on her ability to spot “Eureka!” potential. She understands that it takes time, patience, even faith. And Dahl is the kind of person in whom others place their faith.

“Margaret is a uniquely ­qualified person, and we’re ­fortunate to have her,” says Patel, who describes her as “invaluable.”

It seems that others agree. In January, Dahl received the Georgia Biomedical Partnership’s Biomedical Community Award, given in recognition of her important contributions to Georgia’s life sciences community.

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photos by Dot Paul (M '97)

Click on image to enlarge

Dahl says that one of the reasons she chose UGA over Cornell—which was also recruiting her—was the mindset at Georgia: “The UGA research enterprise is steeped in the basic research tradition. But they’re not afraid to engage in applied work.”

The Georgia BioBusiness Center nurtures companies like InsectiGen, formed by UGA professor Mike Adang. His research uses the

Jeff Ping (PhD ’01) is CEO of P3 Laboratories, a pharmaceutical product development company that graduated in January from the Georgia BioBusiness Center. Formulation scientist Ken Pasols (at left) works in one of the company’s three production suites in Winder.