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Students get hands-on experience at BioInnovations Gateway
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

South Salt Lake • Many scientific ideas that revolutionize life as we know it began as small, almost singular, creative endeavors doggedly pursued with little cash and fraught with the risk of failure.

When they succeed, these inventions are the brain-children of their inventors, but are often the result of behind-the-scenes support.

In short, this is what BioInnovations Gateway, a small nonprofit located at the Granite Education Center, does. Perhaps it is no small irony that its office — and the tiny life science companies it incubates —reside in the former labor and delivery rooms of the renovated hospital.

Today, its director, Kevin Jessing, will ask the Governor's Office of Economic Development Board for more funds because the largest portion of BiG's funding, a Utah Science and Technology Research or USTAR grant, will end on June 30. Without additional funding, BiG will survive for one more year as its startup companies gradually pack up and it undertakes a host of creative, and difficult, measures to stave off "a very slow and painful death," in Jessing's words.

However, to understand the scope of BioInnovations Gateway's impact and the consequence of its fate, a more detailed explanation is needed.

BioInnovations Gateway — or BiG for short — houses tiny startup life science companies for low rent and provides them with the scientific infrastructure — labs and equipment, like mass spectrometers, high-performance liquid chromatography, even injection molding equipment — so that they can pursue their ideas.

What kinds of ideas do they pursue? One of its startup companies, MesaGen, researches cancer medications that are tailored to a cancer patient's genetics. Researchers ask what in a person's stem cells goes haywire and triggers cancer, and then they pursue the answers.

Another of its startup companies, ZIEN Medical Technologies, welcomes the medical device ideas of other tiny startup companies and helps them take these ideas from inception to production, including the navigation of FDA regulations. What kinds of devices does it bring to fruition? A backboard designed to eliminate the back injuries EMTs risk when they lift someone. A syringe that sucks blood clots out of the heart.

But this is only half of the story. BiG also makes it an educational venture because, as Jessing explained, "we try like hell to involve students."

Private industry is loathe to hire high school students, Jessing said, because it becomes a costly, intensive hand-holding exercise. High school students lack skills, knowledge and experience — what Jessing called "the gap." BiG minds this gap, looking for opportunities within each of its startups to apprentice high school students.

For instance, Granger High School senior Kassie Wakefield spent the summer cloning pieces of DNA as a MesaGen employee, seeking to unlock the protein-to-protein interaction that triggers uncontrollable cell reproduction — or cancer.

Skyline senior Skyler Godfrey not only assembled the backboard, called the EZ Lift Rescue System, according to Good Manufacturing Practice standards, but also pursued his own research.

Godfrey's idea? If the artificial sweetener Splenda, or sucralose, is considered an environmental contaminant — in fact, recent research notes that human exposure is widespread through drinking tap water — what is the accumulation of the artificial sweetener in the body?

To learn the crucial research technique to answer this question, Godfrey used high-performance liquid chromatography to determine caffeine levels in energy drinks, then subsequent caffeine levels in the body, measured in urine because it is the same technique to detect drugs in the body.

In the last six months, about 15 students have participated with BiG as they volunteer, earn class credit or earn a paycheck.

With the knowledge and experience they gain, some of these students pursue college degrees, inspired to pursue more education in a field they've dipped a toe in. They may jump into the science field itself, or return to BiG's startups as interns, hungry for more.

But this is not the totality of its story.

Not ignorant of its financial plight, in the last six months BiG opened its doors to outside companies who asked, "I need a student to…" BiG paired the companies with students, whether high school or college, and the expertise of its startups.

With each outside company, BiG crafted an individualized contract that includes overhead and management fees and a commitment to the execution of the contract — with or without students — to assuage companies' concerns about involving students.

Then, once the company sees the product, "By the way, that was done by a student," points out BiG's business operations manager Susannah Hutchins, "and that student is now trained to work in your lab."

This collaborative arrangement resulted in the new backboard when EZ Lift Rescue Systems, Inc., teamed with ZIEN Medical and students. To date, 43 backboards have sold.

It is these types of collaborations that Jessing believes will lead to BiG's self-sustainability, but it will take time, and additional money, to bridge the shortfall in the short term. In the meantime, BiG's success is measured in other ways.

Perhaps the most visible is the success of its life science companies. For instance, one startup, BLOXR (pronounced blocks-er), developed not only light-weight, ceramic-based aprons, thyroid collars, and surgical caps that replace heavy lead aprons worn to protect against radiation when someone is x-rayed, but also a ceramic-based cream to protect the hands. With subsequent commercial success, BLOXR moved out.

And yet, its success is intangible, and incalculable, in the lives of students. They not only learn through their scientific failures, but, having been exposed to career paths in the life sciences, have a clearer picture of what they hope to become.

Godfrey's experiences heavily influenced his goal to become a biochemist.

"This is what I want to do with my life," Godfrey said.

closeup@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sltribSouth

Real-world experience • The nonprofit helps startup companies research cancer and make medical equipment, among other ventures.
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