Scientists, academics, business professionals, politicians and others gathered Thursday at the Holiday Inn University of Memphis, 3700 Central Ave., to listen to entrepreneurial panelists voice their perspectives on the business of bioscience.
“Growing Small Business in the Biosciences” was hosted by the Memphis Bioworks Business Association, a group dedicated to promoting and advancing the bioscience business community in the Memphis region through programs, events and strategic communications.
The event featured five panelists: Buck Brown, president and CEO of iScreen Vision Inc.; Dr. Gary Emmert, founder of Foundation Instruments; Dr. Lisa Jennings, president and CEO of CirQuest Labs LLC; Dr. Duane Miller, co-founder of RxBio Inc.; and Maury Radin, president and co-founder of BioDimensions Inc.
The panel was moderated by Dr. Preston Dorsett, executive in residence at Innova, a pre-seed, seed and early-stage investor that funds companies in the biosciences, technology and AgBio fields.
Topics discussed included the importance of incubators for startups, dealing with funding challenges in a difficult economy, marketing products, developing business skills, and the benefits of growing bioscience-based companies in the Bluff City – where bioscience is among the fastest-growing industries.
An estimated 51,000 locals are employed in the biosciences through medical device companies, hospitals, clinical centers, laboratories and chemical facilities.
For scientists such as those on the panel, shifting from a scientific mindset to a focus on business and marketing can be challenging.
Panelists said they access a number of strategies to spread word about their products, including conferences, peer review journals, tradeshows and the media.
Brown said social media has proven to be an incredibly effective and cost-efficient tool for his company, iScreen Vision.
“What’s happening on the Web literally makes any company anywhere instantly a global company,” he said, adding that before the age of the Web, a small business’ ability to go global would have taken years.
After iScreen Vision set up a Twitter account last month, within days the company had acquired followers from as far away as Scotland, Finland and Korea.
“The beauty of all of that, back to the idea that cash is king, is that the cost for us to set up a Twitter page was exactly zero dollars,” Brown said. “And once you’ve made the investment in a Web page, the ongoing investment is extremely minimal. It’s truly changing the way people are marketing small business in particular.”
In terms of the benefits of basing a bioscience business in Memphis, panelists cited excellent infrastructure, outstanding academic resources, a supportive community and optimal logistics, biologistics and supply chain opportunities.
“We utilize overnight shipping extensively. … We ship to Asia, to Jordan, to all over the U.S. and Europe,” Jennings said. “Having FedEx here has made a tremendous difference.”
Radin, whose business deals with AgBio, said he values Memphis as a transportation and logistics hub accessible by river, rail, air and roads.
“It’s a huge advantage for the area and I can speak to our particular area of interest, to have that kind of logistical capability right in the middle of one of the richest agricultural areas in the country, we think gives us a unique advantage over most other areas,” he said.
Another hometown advantage: Memphis’ high-quality water. Preston said lack of quality water can be a challenge for scientists in other cities.
“I didn’t realize how much of a luxury that is,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, asked the panel if and how federal funding cuts have affected their initiatives.
“It affects the universities, so it affects discovery and opportunities for students to be the next scientists in the world,” Jennings said.
Radin said the Great Recession has proven to be challenging, but “hopefully it won’t get any worse in the future.”
But the panel did say they’ve found some creative ways to continue funding their businesses through private investors and collaborations.
The Memphis Bioworks Foundation, the city’s main incubator for bioscience startups, not only weathered The Great Recession; it doubled the number of startup ventures that it’s assisting and added incubator space by expanding into two more floors and adding laboratory space.
Foundation president and executive director Steve Bares said he expects the city’s bioscience industry to continue to flourish throughout 2011.
“More jobs, more revenue, more orders, more capital and more investment,” Bares told The Daily News. “I’d also expect to see a breadth of new companies that are formed. A lot of interesting concepts and ideas are coming out of the woodwork, and each one of those looks promising.”