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A standing-room-only crowd gathered in Greenville at SCBIO Live on November 9 and 10. The aim was to learn and collaborate to continue the steady expansion of South Carolina's life sciences ecosystem.The event was full of practical takeaways for industry practitioners, from research and collaboration to funding and product development. Several broader takeaways from the general session offered a positive outlook for those with an eye on economic development. Here are five to keep in mind:

1. Life Sciences are South Carolina's Next Big Bet

Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt opened a discussion with an overview of how South Carolina has made concerted, collaborative efforts to build up other sectors such as automotive and logistics. He called life sciences "one of our next great sectors," saying it has a jumpstart that others did not have because of the existing SCBIO organization.

Hitt said the benefits of the SC Automotive Council are reflected in 17 percent growth in manufacturing since 2011. Following that model, earlier this year the Commerce Department earlier this year signed a contract officially partnering with SCBIO to grow the life sciences industry. SCBIO Live speakers pointed out that life sciences in particular helped reinvent the city of Pittsburgh, and have been keeping Houston afloat amid the slump in oil revenues.

2. Small Size Makes Big Impact

The state's small size creates a tighter web of connection that makes it easier to both identify and solve problems. It also helps to reduce bureaucracy and keep the system as agile as possible, which businesses in the sector crave.

Investing in smaller companies has also paid off. Hitt recalled successes in targeting pharmaceutical companies such as Nephron Pharmaceuticals and Abbott (previously St. Jude Medical), then looking at startups. "Brand" South Carolina is also paying off. Though relatively small, our cities are benefitting from outsized reputations: Charleston is known internationally as a destination, and Greenville is building a compelling brand nationally.

3. Startups Are Ready to Roll

Acknowledging that some of our biggest wins have come from small starts, SCBIO Live features a pitch contest. Eleven young companies applied, and five were selected to pitch their novel technologies. The winner was Aravis Biotech, LLC, which pitched its stability measurement tool that indicates when a fractured bone can bear weight again.

The company is led by Dr. Jeffrey Anker, a Clemson University assistant professor in analytical chemistry, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Caleb Behrend, and Dr. John DesJardins, a Clemson bioengineering professor who has participated in two Upstate SC Alliance mission trips to Spain to recruit bioscience companies to the region.

Other pitches were:

  • a mobile app that connects parents with caregivers of children in neonatal intensive care
  • a technology for freezing living tissue and later rejuvenating it back to a living state
  • digitized catheters that send an alert at the signs of dangerous infection
  • disposable membranes that help purify drugs 100 times faster and 40 percent cheaper

4. Life Sciences Hubs Are Here and Growing

Developments are coming fast as private entities partner with universities to develop products and grow companies.

Gibbs Cancer Center and Research Institute in Spartanburg has transformed into an academic/community hybrid according to President Dr. Tim Yateman. With a focus on colorectal cancer, the center conducts high-quality research on smaller scale, allowing it to stay on cutting edge of genome sequencing, drug development and more. Research is then rapidly translated into a clinical setting.

Gibbs is also the nucleus of the Guardian Research Network, a multi-state consortium of healthcare operators in several states that share real time information to quickly identify trends and deliver targeted therapies.

In Greenville, Greenville Health System (GHS) is "basically a giant laboratory for industry" given its 14,000 employees, eight campuses and thousands of patients, according to Sam Konduros, Executive Director for the Research Development Corporation (RDC) of GHS. RDC currently works with more than 50 companies that span nine different specialties in life sciences. The coming IMED campus in the southern part of Greenville County comes from collaboration among landowners, real estate developers, and industry input. It will be something of a cross between Research Triangle Park and Greenville's Clemson University Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) that Konduros also helped develop. 

5. We May Not Be Boston, But We Can Compete

Wayne Roper, SCBIO president, says he is often asked whether South Carolina can really compete in the life sciences. His answer? “Absolutely.”

At this very moment, a number of biomedical innovations are taking place in South Carolina, from healthIT to cancer treatments. Industry leaders concede that South Carolina will not be able to recreate biotech powerhouses like Boston or Research Triangle Park overnight, but the state has a proven record of bringing home-grown research to market. Both Clemson University and the Medical University of South Carolina, for example, have spun out business concepts, and have faculty with feet planted in both business and life sciences research. The challenge, now, is to do even more.

Photographs by SCBIO.