Biotech leader anticipates more breakthroughs, innovation in year ahead

It has been a defining year for many industries, but especially for biotechnology.

South Dakota Biotech sits at the center of the industry as the state affiliate for the international BIO organization.

And while 2020 brought a significant spotlight to the role biotechnology can play in human health, the industry also continued to evolve in the areas of animal health, energy and agriculture.

South Dakota Biotech executive director Joni Johnson offers a look at how the industry is emerging from 2020 and positioned for further growth in South Dakota.

Is it too soon to tell, or can you already get a sense of what the pandemic has changed for the biotech community?
If there’s a silver lining to the past year, it’s that we’ve learned a lot about how to accelerate innovation and get breakthroughs to patients, even in the most trying times. It was remarkable to see how the industry rose to the challenge with unprecedented collaboration and speed to deliver new solutions to patients. In fact, in one year, the industry launched 838 programs targeting COVID-19. By stepping up to these challenges, the biotech industry also had two opportunities: to showcase innovation and entrepreneurship, and to showcase the community as a science-based, collaborative industry that’s concerned about ensuring global access to new technology.

While the world’s attention has been rightfully focused on the hope of a breakthrough that will eradicate COVID-19, the private biotech sector racked up record-breaking investments during the first half of 2020. As much of the economy falls victim to the global threat, venture capital funding for biotech companies is not only weathering the storm, it toped over $6.4 billion in the second quarter of 2020, which is more than what was raised annually in every year before 2014!

The industry’s rapid response, collaboration and determination to uncover potential therapeutics and vaccines to fight the pandemic have boosted interest in the sector as it becomes clear that science is what will lead us back to normal. In addition, investors have not lost sight of the fact that biotechnology potentially can deliver solutions for unmet needs of patients. Emerging companies are often the ones to uncover breakthroughs that lead to treatments that change or save lives. Savvy investors recognize the exhaustive and time-consuming process of drug development and are willing to stick it out, regardless of what is going on in the rest of the economy.

How has the South Dakota biotech industry responded to the pandemic?
The industry has responded in some incredibly impressive ways and helped our state make a mark nationally. SAB Biotherapeutics truly is built for a pandemic like this. Its novel therapeutic approach is part of Operation Warp Speed and has resulted in significant investment. We can’t wait to see what the coming year brings for SAB.

Avera Health and Sanford Health also have been leading the way with providing access to cutting-edge therapeutics, their involvement in clinical trials and their quick shift to virtual care. It has been a powerful reminder of how fortunate we are to have them delivering our care and involved in emerging research at the same time.

Medgene Labs developed a COVID-19 vaccine for use in companion animals. That’s a significant milestone and shows the company’s capabilities in a way I expect will draw increased attention industrywide. This company is absolutely one to watch this year and going forward.

And I have to mention POET and its quick pivot during the pandemic. The energy sector was hit hard and fast, and POET not only stepped up on the humanitarian side by shifting to produce sanitizer, but also it’s growing that effort into a solid business line. That’s the spirit of innovation we see throughout our industry, and we’re excited to see what’s next for them.

Biotech advancement continued outside the pandemic in 2020 too. What are some of the key developments within your membership?
There’s so much that has been happening. This is just a sampling:

A highly digestible fish, shrimp and young terrestrial animal feed ingredient produced from South Dakota soybeans is reaching a worldwide market. Prairie AquaTech currently fills orders for its product from six continents and more than a dozen countries, including Mexico, Panama, Peru, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands and Indonesia. The non-GMO product is exported primarily to Europe.

A South Dakota-based startup, Nanopareil, was acquired by Gamma Biosciences to advance its next-generation purification capabilities of Astrea Bioseparations.

Alucent Biomedical Inc., which was founded by Avera Health to commercialize products using natural vascular scaffolding technology, closed a $35 million Series B financing round led by a large multinational investor.

NASA has selected a team from South Dakota State University among its 12 national finalists for its fifth annual Moon to Mars Ice & Prospecting Challenge. SDSU is the only Midwest school to be chosen. Among the others tabbed include MIT, Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, Stevens Institute of Technology and Virginia Tech.

What are you most looking forward to in terms of biotech development in 2021?
We’ve seen very positive signs that early-stage companies are going to be emerging. Through programs and partnerships at our universities, schools including SDSU, SDSM&T and USD are positioning themselves to develop an unprecedented pipeline of early-stage companies in 2021.  It’s important that we maintain strong startup funding sources to give these companies a chance of success. Programs such as the state’s Proof of Concept, Dakota Seeds, Giant Vision, South Dakota Equity Partners and SBIR are critical to economic development growth fostered inside our state.

I’m also looking forward to watching our emerging companies – SAB, Nanopareil, Inanovate, to name a few – grow.  The industries that will grow with them include construction companies, commercial developers, law firms, manufacturers, banking, insurance companies and others.

And finally, we are coming off a record-setting year for Small Business Innovation Research funding to South Dakota companies. This is a federal small-business program that funds development of innovative new products and processes that address the missions of federal agencies and have commercial potential. SBIR companies are creating high-tech exports from South Dakota and creating high-tech jobs in South Dakota, and this infusion of funding will lead to increased activity.

As an association, what more is South Dakota Biotech doing this year to continue the industry’s momentum and support its growth in South Dakota?
COVID-19 highlighted some serious issues in our current supply chain. Therefore, we are making a deliberate attempt to work with organizations like South Dakota Manufacturing & Technology Solutions to connect the biotech and manufacturing industries.

I’m also looking forward to broadening our communication in the year ahead. We just launched our first podcast called Inside Out Quality. It explores product failures that affected lives and companies — all which could have been avoided through basic quality practices. Our goal is to both educate and share how a well-designed quality system can save your company and the lives of those you care about and work to make better products.

And, along with the broader BIO organization, we are educating the Biden administration on biotech issues. We are especially interested in the USDA’s focus on animal biotechnology. Agricultural biotechnology holds tremendous potential to improve animal health, enhance farm productivity, improve nutrition and even reduce the need for some animal health measures. The USDA and FDA have a long history of delineating the review of products with overlapping jurisdictional authority between the two agencies to promote regulatory clarity and reduce duplicative review. They recently signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a regulatory environment at USDA for agricultural animal biotechnology innovation. We’re hopeful this is a very positive step forward for the industry.
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