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Life at University Enterprise Laboratories

Right off the Westgate stop of the Twin Cities Metro Green Line, you’ll see a multitude of taupe-colored office buildings, a quirky cookie shop, and the KSTP television station. But head a little further behind the main drag to find University Enterprise Laboratories (UEL): not quite a co-working space, not quite an accelerator… but something in between.

“Focused is a good way to describe it,” says Diane Rucker, executive director of UEL. Best formally described as an independent incubator, Rucker chose “intense” as another word to help outsiders picture the massive entity. “It’s not a co-working space, technically — the energy and buzz is a bit quieter here,” she explains.

Most of the 45 companies working in the building are biotech-related, conducting research or studies involving biological technology. As such, many companies are confined to their labs or offices, giving the space a more introverted feel than the typical open-office-style co-working spaces.

Founded in 2005, UEL is working on creating an official application process for companies, but the approximately 350 people currently working there all came via word-of-mouth connections. No recruitment has been necessary so far, and the facility is currently at 95 percent occupancy. The 144,000-square-foot space is complete with 33 wet labs, various dry labs and conference space — and new additions are on their way.

Contrary to popular belief — and the organization’s title — UEL is not affiliated with the University of Minnesota, or any specific university at all. While about one-third of the companies working there come from the U of M (with the other two-thirds being from private entrepreneurs or independent companies), there is no direct tie or affiliation.

There is, however, a “work hard, play hard” attitude similar to a university, says Rucker. “There’s very much an intensity to the work our companies do,” she says.

Paving the Way for Clinical Research

The largest company utilizing UEL space — and one of the first to do so — is Prism Clinical Research, a Phase 1 clinical research company. Anytime a drug is in development and the FDA approves the drug for further development, the first time that it is tested on humans would be at someplace like Prism.

“We’re the only [clinical research] facility in the upper Midwest,” says Geoffrey Gassle, president of non-clinical research at Prism. With 52 beds, doctors, nurses, and other medical staff, it’s “basically a mini-hospital,” he says.

.A look inside the Prism Clinical Research space at UEL.

Gassle explains that the process starts with a screening to see who would be best fit to participate. Then, after an explanation of what the study entails and agreement to participate, patients come to Prism, check-in as they would in a hospital, and stay for the period of time the study takes. “This ranges from a few days to a few weeks,” he says.  

It’s for this reason that the facility has its own commercial kitchen for planned-out meals and measures to avoid contraband being brought into the facility: to control substances and provide unbiased results. The type of study volunteers that Prism brings in can vary significantly dependent on the study. 

Founded 15 years ago, Prism was one of the first tenants at UEL and was thus able to customize their experience there, building from the ground up. “We were able to design the space based on the experience of our collective team,” says Gassle. Now at 17,000 square feet and 30 full-time employees, with an additional set of on-call staff, Prism is getting ready to expand even further.

“We’re planning on staying [at UEL], for at least another seven to ten years,” says Gassle, who shares that construction on additional bed space for the company is planned to start in early 2020. Since many of the studies Prism conducts involve an inpatient component, bed space is a large portion of their area; the next research study they are conducting involves 40 days of inpatient participation.

According to Gassle, one of the biggest advantages for Prism’s location within UEL — formerly a Target distribution warehouse — is the central location. Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the Mississippi River all provide both physical and emotional barriers that are culturally significant for people, he says. “[Being] located in the middle of each of them allows us to draw from both sides.”

Starting Small, Dreaming Big

At the other end of the spectrum of size of companies at UEL is Oncodea, a two person team developing innovative cancer research technology. “We are working to develop artificial intelligence-driven early cancer detection,” says Dan Que Pham, the marketing and business half of the husband and wife team. 

Founder Dan Que Pham in the Oncodea lab at UEL.

The startup is also working to develop real-time monitoring of disease progression for the purpose of identifying preventative and targeted treatment strategies. Ali Khammanivong, PhD, is Pham’s partner and has been a cancer researcher at the U of M for 20 years. The idea for Oncodea had been floating around since September of 2018. The couple decided to move forward with the concept earlier this year and moved into UEL, where they share a lab with another small company, at the end of summer 2019.

“We are looking at having it running in 1-2 years,” says Pham, adding that the team is also trying to find a way to detect early stage cancer with techniques that are affordable and could be used in other countries — Khammanivong is originally from Laos and Pham is from Vietnam, and is currently looking at the possibility of collaborating with organizations in Vietnam.

The creators of Oncodea both still have full-time day jobs. “Technically [we’re] working day and night,” says Pham, explaining that after a full day’s work, she and her husband eat dinner and then head to the lab, where they also spend most weekends.

Pham describes UEL as an extremely helpful community for someone like herself who is so new to the ecosystem. “Everyone has been so supportive and useful so far,” she says, mentioning that Rucker’s connections and knowledge of other companies’ skills have come to be essential to the growth of Oncodea. 

“I was stuck because I didn’t know how to go forward,” she says, adding that the bookkeeping, legal, and financial side of the business were completely new for her. After talking with Rucker and observing the work other companies were doing, she was able to figure out what was next. 

“The people at UEL are so willing to share their knowledge and equipment, and willing to talk about what it takes to start a company,” Pham says.

Growing at UEL and Giving Back

Lisa Herron-Olson, another UEL tenant, is one of those people. The CEO and Managing Director of vaccine development company Syntiron, Herron-Olson is also now on the board of directors at UEL in order to provide a tenant perspective and help with strategic planning of the building.

“I love working at UEL, and really wanted to keep working with startups,” Herron-Olson says, who joined the board in 2016. “There are so many great companies here with no understanding of what’s going to happen to them, and I wanted to help them skip some of the challenges that we encountered [at Syntiron].”

Jared Zak and Jaki Jacobson in the Syntiron lab at UEL

UEL has changed in the past four years—there’s a focus on creating more of a community, says Herron-Olson, adding that people within the building care deeply about the community. She also shares that people outside of the building helping companies get media and share stories is something new for UEL.

“It wasn’t like this when I started,” she says. “Everyone was quietly working in the darkness until they got a break.” Herron-Olson credits not only Rucker but the outer Twin Cities startup community for the growth and additional focus on helping companies get out into the ecosystem.

On the board, which contains members in everything from accounting to real estate, proposals for the building and the community are constantly changing along with the needs of UEL’s companies. Centralizing resources and bringing more investors to UEL are currently at the top of the list, but as with any startup ecosystem, this is always evolving. “The things that were important to companies when I started are irrelevant now,” says Herron-Olson. 

One of the only human vaccine development companies in Minnesota, Syntiron was founded in 2004 and moved into UEL right when it opened in 2005. The company, which includes eight full-time scientists each with a different background in biology, was acquired in 2018 and is now an EW Group company.

Focusing primarily on bacterial vaccinations, the company is currently approaching a clinical phase. This time period is pretty normal, says Herron-Olson, as there is a tremendous amount of testing involved with human vaccine development. The first vaccine Syntiron is focused on getting to the commercial market is one to prevent urinary tract infections.

One of the unique aspects of UEL is that it’s equipped for this type of laboratory research, she says. “UEL has been critical to our success, especially the location and access to other companies over the years,” says Herron-Olson.

From Mayo Clinic to UEL

Yet another company that has benefitted from the biotech incubator-type space is Phenomix Sciences, a Mayo Clinic startup built around the idea of bringing precision medicine to obesity. The company is working on using a licensed blood test to be able to divide obesity into four subtypes, personalizing treatment for obesity.

“Treatment for so long [for obesity] has been ‘one size fits all,’” says Ross Higgins, COO of Phenomix Sciences. “The reality is, patients don’t respond the same way,” he explains, adding that only 30 percent of people who receive treatments for obesity actually see results.

Inside the lab of Phenomix Sciences at UEL

“We’re finding those treatments for subtypes of obesity via this blood test,” he says. The end goal is to bring this test to health providers dealing with obesity from a clinical standpoint.

Founded by Dr. Andres Acosta, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor at Mayo Clinic, the LLC was set up for Phenomix in 2017. Soon after Higgins joined in September 2018, the company chose UEL for its lab space. “Because of the type of equipment that we’re using to run blood samples, we needed a certain kind of space,” he says. With the new addition last year to UEL with more labs and brand-new equipment, it was the best of both worlds for Phenomix. “[It was] something that was new and functional, but also affordable for us,” he says.

Higgins’ view of this unique space echoes what many tenants and entrepreneurs have discovered since moving in. “There’s really nowhere else in St. Paul or Minneapolis that’s quite like UEL.” 

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