Biotech Players Recognize 'Survival of Fastest' Idea Using Aerotropolis

BY SCOTT SHEPARD | Special to The Daily News

DAILY GRIND: This Smith & Nephew technician works on finishing part of a replacement knee. -- Photo Courtesy Of Smith & Nephew

While talk of biotechnology in Memphis evokes images of brilliant people peering down microscopes, when it comes to job creation, a better image is the FedEx Express sorting hub. Thousands of times each day FedEx package handlers load boxes of surgical instruments, medical devices and tissue samples to be delivered around the world. Elsewhere in the hub, others are off-loading the same things for processing in Memphis.

And with the proposed Aerotropolis, with Memphis International Airport at the center, biotech logistics will only grow.

"We're moving to an economy based on survival of the fastest," said Steve Bares, president of Memphis Bioworks Foundation.

Darwinian proposition

Aerotropolis is a concept only imagined in a few cities around the globe in which manufacturers of all types cluster near a major airport. Customers can place orders online with products custom assembled for next-day delivery.

It's already occurring in Memphis for companies as diverse as auto-parts distributors and home d├ęcor outlets. If a tourist loses his credit card while vacationing in Brazil, chances are his bank will use a vendor in Memphis to FedEx a replacement the next day.

FedEx is now working with the Memphis Regional Chamber to refine and organize the Aerotropolis concept. For a taste of things to come, Bares likes to point out several Memphis businesses that have figured out the concept.

Ex factor at work

When Tim Hodge was in graduate school, he spent his days performing tedious tests at a lab bench, seeking to confirm the presence or absence of specific genes in lab mice. At night he worked in a highly automated lab that processed thousands of blood specimens each hour. Then six years ago, he formed Transnetyx, which marries the two.

After $25 million and countless hours of trial and error, Transnetyx is revolutionizing genetic research by automating that tedious bench work. Including the hand labor, it costs a scientist about $75 to identify the target gene in a single mouse, said Bob Bean, vice president of Transnetyx. If a snippet of a mouse's tail or ear is shipped via FedEx to Transnetyx, it's possible to get more accurate information for about $12, plus the lab technician's time is freed for more productive work.

The company has four patents protecting its technology and innovations. The chemistry is no secret, Bean said, but the custom-built machinery is so complex he's not afraid of copycats.

Transnetyx can process more than 50,000 tissue samples in 18 hours, and now has clients as far away as Japan and Europe. The company ships its samples using FedEx to Memphis, and gets the results by e-mail the next day.

"Transnetyx is the perfect example of biotech logistics," Bares said. "They are not creating a new biological product, but they are leveraging the concept of Aerotropolis by helping researchers on a global basis."


In a similar vein is Genome Explorations, which receives tissue samples from labs around the world and develops genetic profiles. While Transnetyx is looking for a single gene of interest, Genome Explorations looks at the entire DNA strand of 300,000 genes and figures out which few hundred are actually active.

There also have been a few misfires. San Francisco-based Cell Genesys sought to be on the leading edge of custom cancer vaccines, producing medicine in Memphis tailored to an individual patient's genetics.

In 2005 company officials said the concept is still valid, but more complex than they first believed. Cell Genesys retrenched in California to focus on more promising vaccines that could be produced in volume, though it still runs distribution in Memphis.

Two companies just a stone's throw away from the airport demonstrate on a daily basis how Aerotropolis will work when it comes to biotechnology.

Surgeons around the world place orders with Medtronic Spinal and Biologics and Smith & Nephew Orthopaedics, where workers assemble kits with medical implants, biological products like bone growth factors and surgical instruments.

Reconstruction kits, say, for a total hip replacement, can be in a doctor's hands the next morning. If a patient has suffered serious trauma he can be treated within hours.

"In a business like ours, trauma surgery in particular, you want to respond," said William Griffin, senior vice president for Global Operations at Smith & Nephew. "We maintain a next-flight-out option. We'll take it down to the airport and buy a ticket for the product. We can have it at almost any hospital in three to four hours."

Medical devices are so expensive that it's impossible to maintain inventory everywhere. Smith & Nephew closed its five regional distribution centers and now runs everything out of Memphis.