Cestaro: Lab Will be First of its Kind

By Jennifer Johnson Backer

TriMetis president Phil Cestaro took a year off after he resigned from Nashville-based SCRI Global Services at the Sarah Cannon Research Institute in 2011, where he was president.

The 26,000-square-foot TriMetis facility will be the third new construction project at the UT-Baptist Research Park.

“I didn’t know how much time I was going to take off, I just knew I was going to enjoy life and my family,” he said. “It was the best decision I ever made.”

After a careful search, Cestaro took the helm of Memphis-based TriMetis about a year ago. The for-profit research company, the first of its kind in Tennessee, will operate the Memphis Specialized Laboratory, a $22 million, 26,000-square-foot facility designed for pre-clinical research.

Pre-clinical research is one of the earliest phases of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approval process before pharmaceuticals and medical devices can move forward in the development pipeline.

In addition to his role as president of TriMetis, Cestaro also is vice president of life sciences and biomedical at the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, a nonprofit organization that launched the new TriMetis research facility.

While he started as a public accountant, Cestaro has built an expertise in startup companies and clinical research consulting. As chief operating officer of Siteworks Solutions, he grew the company from a startup to a life sciences consulting company.

He also negotiated the sale of Siteworks to Oracle Corp., where Cestaro remained as director of life sciences product development until he joined SCRI Global Services.

“I love building things and seeing things grow,” Cestaro said. “I don’t get the Sunday night blues. This fits right into what I love doing.”

It’s been a long time since Cestaro worked as an accountant, but he credits his early days working for Blockbuster for sparking his entrepreneurial drive.

“At that time, they were buying companies all over the place and I got to learn a ton,” he said. “… It was that excitement that really gave me the interest and got my creative juices going to do that type of work.”

Cestaro says he sees TriMetis as the perfect opportunity to take what started as a request from the biomedical community and to turn it into a viable business. The company came about to fill what Cestaro calls a hole in Memphis’ pharmaceutical and medical device research industry.

He estimates that local companies are exporting $3 million to $5 million annually because the city does not have a facility for pre-clinical research that meets FDA requirements.

Cestaro says the lab is a tremendous opportunity to recruit local companies and those elsewhere in the nation when the lab opens in May. While there are other pre-clinical research facilities in academia in the region, there are a limited number of research labs that operate on a contract basis like TriMetis, he said.

Companies can pay TriMetis a fee to conduct research using the facility’s clinical workers, but they also can rent space and bring their own workers. He estimates the lab will employ 40 to 50 employees when it’s fully operational. Because the lab has strict security to protect intellectual property and to meet the FDA’s rules and regulations, Cestaro isn’t able to share information about the companies that will be using the facilities when the doors open in May.

“When pharmaceutical and medical device companies have an idea and it’s at a stage where it’s more than a thought, we will work with that company to set a plan,” he said.

TriMetis is also more than a laboratory for pre-clinical research. Cestaro wants to use his consulting background to help small and medium-sized businesses make their ideas a reality. TriMetis will offer consulting in advisory, quality and regulatory work for startup companies.

Startup companies frequently struggle to find capital to grow their businesses. TriMetis is unique in that the company will also fund some startup companies through Innova, an early-stage investor that focuses on companies in the biosciences, technology and AgBio fields in Tennessee.

“The capital isn’t everywhere,” Cestaro said. “You can’t finance a business with all debt anymore, and the money you are getting from angel investors is much less.”

The funding for the $22 million specialized TriMetis specialized laboratory is through a combination of public and private funding, including a state of Tennessee grant, Federal New Market Tax Credits, and local bank financing through First Tennessee, Memphis Bioworks Foundation equity contributions and local philanthropy.

Cestaro said that funding and the continued support from the Memphis Bioworks Foundation has been crucial to establishing a network and recruiting talent for TriMetis. He said it’s rare to be able to run a startup with so much support, which has allowed him to develop a business plan quickly and creatively.

“If you want to be handed a book that tells you how to do your job, then the startup industry is not for you,” he said. “But if you want to figure out what that book looks like, then this is the perfect job for you.”