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Even in Weak Economy, Business Is Booming at UCSF Biotech Incubator

By Robin Hindery, UCSF Science Cafe | July 2, 2009

With San Francisco's office leasing market in the doldrums and availability up nearly 20 percent from last year, many property managers are doing whatever they can to entice new tenants.

UCSF's Douglas Crawford, PhD, has the opposite problem.

"We're chock-full, and my phone keeps ringing," said Crawford, associate executive director of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3) at UCSF's Mission Bay campus, where he supervises the QB3 Garage, an incubator for biotech startups. "Despite the wider economic recession, business is booming."

Crawford said he is currently receiving up to four calls a week from companies looking to occupy one of the six slots in the 2,500-square-foot cluster of rooms that comprise the garage. Unlike most facilities, the garage can lease micro-amounts of space - as little as 120 square feet - which is a big draw for the often cash-strapped companies.

That was certainly true for one of the newest occupants, Omniox Inc., which arrived at the garage in April and has taken over a 270-square-foot office and about 50 square feet of communal lab space.

"We thought, 'Let's get as far as we can and create as much value as possible with as little as possible,'" said SallyAnn Reiss, the company's chief operating officer.

Through some creative organizing, Omniox has managed to cram a fully functioning protein lab into a room that company founder Stephen Cary, PhD, compared to a "Tokyo apartment."

Small Space, Big Ideas
Within that very small space, Omniox is engaging in some very big work. Cary and his team hope to commercialize a protein that binds to oxygen and transports it to tissues and systems throughout the body.

The product, based on the work of UC Berkeley chemist Michael Marletta, PhD, is being actively tested in animals with the hope that it could someday be used for a range of clinical applications, including cancer treatment and the treatment of trauma patients suffering from rapid and significant blood loss.

"Prior efforts to develop therapeutic oxygen carriers over the past 30 years have failed after they proved to be toxic in clinical trials," Cary said. "The raison d'etre for Omniox is that we believe we've discovered a way to deliver oxygen without negative side effects."

In late 2008, Omniox received a grant from the National Cancer Institute to focus on using its breakthrough technology to deliver oxygen to tumors - a process that could greatly increase the efficacy of radiation therapies. The company is also applying for a number of grants from the National Institutes of Health, which is in the process of doling out more than $10 billion in economic stimulus funds.

Cary said the proximity to the University's renowned research and clinical enterprise at Mission Bay was part of the appeal of the QB3 Garage, and he has already formed partnerships with several UCSF faculty members.

For example, the company recently submitted a joint grant proposal with John Kurhanewicz, PhD, UCSF professor of radiology, pharmaceutical chemistry and urology, who specializes in using advanced imaging techniques to study and treat prostate cancer. The grant would fund the study of real-time metabolic changes within oxygen-deprived tumors after they are exposed to Omniox's oxygen-delivery proteins.

Read more at Robin Hindery, UCSF Science Cafe