August 12, 2004

Research firm, call center boost area job picture

Jonathan Maze  /  Post and Courier

Professor's expanded company may help S.C. biotech economy

Dr. Mark Kindy spent his first two years at the Medical University of South Carolina focusing on academic pursuits. Now he's getting down to business in a venture that economic development officials hope will help boost the state's economy.

When MUSC recruited Kindy from Kentucky in 2002, the physiology and neuroscience professor brought with him the company he formed in 1999, now called Neurological Testing Services. It tests the potential of drugs before they are tested on people.

Kindy's plans are to expand the company from five workers to 12 in the coming months and begin helping other university researchers develop drugs.

"We're moving along, reformatting it and making it better," said Kindy, who is a neurosciences professor as well as director of MUSC's Neuroscience Institute and associate director of its Center on Aging and the South Carolina Spinal Cord Injury Center, which also is based at the university.

Neurological Testing is the 11th company to be spun off from MUSC research since 1997.The news was announced Wednesday at a press conference attended by a number of local and state economic development officials, including state Commerce Secretary Bob Faith and Karl Kelly, CEO of the South Carolina Biotechnology Incubation Program, a public-private collaborative dedicated to fostering life-science companies in South Carolina. Kindy's plans, officials said, should bolster the state's efforts to develop a so-called knowledge-based economy. "When projects like this one succeed, the ripple effect, in the form of a higher standard of living, can truly be felt throughout the state," Faith said.

Officials say nurturing entrepreneurial enterprises that already make their home in South Carolina offers better odds to boosting the biotech industry than trying to attract companies to relocate to the state. With a growing number of states vying for a piece of the biotech market, competition for such companies is intense. Ken Roozen, director of MUSC's Foundation for Research Development, said three-quarters of life-science companies blossom in the state where they are planted. Still, even with homegrown enterprises, there are challenges.

Most of the 11 companies started through MUSC remain in business, but only four continue to do business in Charleston, including Neurological Testing. Four others, including the largest firms, have moved out of state. Keeping such companies here, economic development officials believe, will require additional lab space, including more business incubators designed to nurture young biotechs, as well as more venture capital.

The state Legislature passed the Life Sciences Act to do that, but the legislation has been embroiled in a legal dispute and is in limbo. Nevertheless, officials have particularly high hopes for Neurological Testing, not just because of the company's growth potential but because its existence could help the area's life-science economy in general.

The company investigates pharmaceuticals associated with diseases such as stroke, epilepsy, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Its tests are designed to help medical researchers determine the potential of new drugs before companies undertake the expense of a clinical trial. Kindy said his company also is working with the university to perform similar testing for drugs developed by MUSC researchers.

Until now, Roozen said, researchers would have to contract with out-of-state companies to do that work. "This company could definitely help Charleston," Kelly said. "It's providing a service the area does not have today."