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VOL. 126 | NO. 95 | Monday, May 16, 2011

Belgian Professor Discusses Biotech Ties to Memphis

By Aisling Maki

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The Bluff City and the city of Liége in Belgium, this year’s Memphis in May International Festival-honored country, are both growing hubs of biotech research and incubation.

And as part of the business exchange activities between Memphis and Belgium, representatives from Memphis’ business, government and scientific community Thursday gathered at the Memphis Bioworks Conference Center, 20 Dudley St., to hear professor Joseph A. Martial of the University of Liége speak during a luncheon event.

Martial spearheaded the creation of Groupe Interdisciplinaire de Génoprotéomique Appliquée (GIGA), a structure that gathered 30 professors and 600 workers in an interdisciplinary dynamic to focus on genoproteomics.

“Immediately, upon meeting him and touring the wonderful facility, we knew that there was a perfect correlation – that this would relate extraordinarily well to Memphis Bioworks, our research efforts here in the city and our commercial applications,”

Jim Holt, president and CEO of Memphis in May, said to the audience, which included Memphis City Councilman Bill Boyd, a representative from U.S. Sen. Bob Corker’s office, and several entrepreneurs from local bioscience startup companies.

Memphis in May and the Greater Memphis Chamber joined the Memphis Bioworks Business Association in hosting Martial, a doctor of science, molecular biology and the Genetic Engineering Unit at the university.

“The work that professor Martial does in Belgium is very much like the work we are doing at Memphis Bioworks Foundation,” said Dr. Steven Bares, president and executive director of the foundation, which brings together public, private, academic and government entities to improve and expand Memphis’ bioscience landscape. “He is focused on building clusters and taking ideas from the lab to the marketplace through a focus on education, infrastructure and entrepreneurship. One of the goals of Memphis in May, outside of the entertainment offerings, is to create a professional business exchange. We are proud to have been able to play our part in that exchange with Belgium by hosting professor Martial.”

Liége, located in Southern Belgium, is a French-speaking city of about 400,000 people.

An industrial region with a rich track record in the coal and steel industries, the city suffered socio-economic problems as a result of difficulties in these sectors.

But the city also had attributes Martial saw as opportunities for economic growth: a history in biology and biochemistry, as well as an academic hospital, some private young biotech companies, and research groups with a real willingness to increase interactions and share resources.

Much like the story of Memphis Bioworks, GIGA was built on Liége’s unique strengths and created with the intention of being a force in economic redeployment, to make the city a biotech center.

Located within the University of Liége’s academic hospital, GIGA’s core research is divided into seven disciplines: cancer; stem cells and regenerative medicine; genetics; infection, immunity and inflammation; signal transduction; systems biology and chemical biology; and neurosciences.

On the business side, GIGA is managed by a central tech transfer office whose purpose is to focus on detecting research projects with economic potential, negotiating intellectual property with collaborators and finding industrial partners.

Business facilities are located inside the research center, offering biotech companies a development opportunity within the GIGA structure.

GIGA currently has seven companies and Martial said “more are coming, knocking on the door.”

Martial said the biotech industry suffers from a shortage of trained technicians, and to tackle this, GIGA has developed a partnership with the Belgian government in which the research facility receives subsidies in exchange for training students and job seekers in the biotech sector.

After GIGA trains them in areas such as molecular biology, bio-security and project management, about 80 percent find new jobs.

In Memphis, bioscience is among the fastest-growing industries in the area, employing more than 50,000 people.

And communities across the country are interested in the business of bioscience because it’s an innovation-driven sector, a vibrant industry with solid potential for generating jobs and revenue.

Martial said GIGA is open to collaborating with American partners, including those in Memphis.

He said a former student of his traveled to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for his post-doctorate work. That student is now a well-known scientist in Belgium.

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