2021 Mid-Atlantic Science and Technology Virtual Showcase
The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly disrupted communities and economies around the world. Almost every life science company has faced significant hurdles in supplying and scaling up vitally important medical products for patients and clinicians, while also racing against time towards developing new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines for COVID-19. These companies also needed to safeguard the health and safety of their own workforce. Despite many setbacks, the majority of them were successful at pivoting and responding swiftly to challenges arising during the pandemic.
The ISPE Chesapeake Bay Area Chapter Mid-Atlantic Science & Technology (MAST) Virtual Showcase, hosted on May 19th, 2021, provided a platform for life science companies to discuss strategies for addressing challenges in the life science industry. Industry experts, entrepreneurs, academicians, and life science professionals shared ideas and also gauged the industry’s pulse for future innovation. The event featured a series of talks and panel discussions that were categorized based on the following genres: research, manufacturing, and logistics & preparation.
The event’s keynote speech was delivered by Bill Enright, CEO of Vaccitech. The UK-based vaccine and biotech company is the success story for how ethical technology transfer and extensive collaboration can save millions of lives: Vaccitech helped in the development of the AstraZeneca-University of Oxford COVID-19 vaccine, AZD-1222. One of the other reasons AZD-1222 was developed in such a rapid time frame was because Vaccitech had previously developed a vaccine against another strain of coronavirus during the MERS outbreak and they licensed out this technology to AstraZeneca-University of Oxford.
Adapting to change during the ever-changing pandemic landscape was the common topic of discussion across the various sessions. Similar to previous discussions, building a skilled workforce post-pandemic remains a top priority for the BioHealth Capital Region. Many useful ideas were shared on recruiting, retaining, and educating the workforce. Institutes like Montgomery College and Frederick Community College have aligned their curriculum to match the needs of the industry (including offering courses in data management and data integrity) and continue to expand their apprenticeship programs that connect students with professional opportunities at local life science companies.
As one expert panelist advised, life science companies should also come up with creative recruitment strategies. For example, Baltimore Tracks utilizes consented job application sharing to connect job seekers with suitable openings at local companies. A similar collaboration among life science companies could positively impact STEM talent across the region.
Continued support and engagement during the pandemic have benefited local organizations, particularly startups. Organizations like the Maryland Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO) continued to provide business assistance to their portfolio of companies, thus enabling them to achieve their respective milestones during the pandemic. The organization recently funded numerous clinical trials, including one to address acute respiratory disease syndrome (ARDS), a fatal COVID-19 complication. The Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation helped connect companies negatively impacted by the pandemic with financial resources such as the Maryland Work Unemployment Insurance program and other government grants.
They also assisted newcomers like Ellume, the Australian diagnostic company, with their business initiatives. Industry momentum did not stall during the pandemic: in August 2020, BARDA and Johnson & Johnson Innovation (JLABS) launched Blue Knight – a program aimed at stimulating innovation to improve global health security. As part of the program’s first cohort, several companies across the JLABS portfolio were selected for their promising work in filling gaps in current COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, and other solutions. In fact, Maryland life science companies thrived during the pandemic, raising $2.3B in grant funding from the NIH and $1.16B in venture capital.
Another topic of discussion was whether life sciences companies will advance manufacturing capabilities post-pandemic. Industry experts weighed in on strategies that companies should implement in the near future. They cited automation as the most promising trend for the future of biomanufacturing. This would include automating manufacturing processes to reduce human error, and automating equipment cleaning to increase good manufacturing compliance. Other efforts that can improve manufacturing efficiency include adoption of digital software for quality control management, electronic batch recording and document management.
The pandemic also reinforced the importance of a robust pharmaceutical supply chain. During the height of the pandemic, almost 3/4th of the drugs used to treat COVID-19, the majority of which were manufactured overseas, were in short supply in the US hospitals. Localized manufacturing might reduce reliance on imported medicines, however, the associated costs might be prohibitive and drive up the price of the finished products. Recently, On-Demand Pharmaceuticals developed a breakthrough platform, the Pharmacy on Demand, that manufactures medicines along the entire pharmaceutical life cycle in machines that are the size of a refrigerator instead of a factory. The manufacturing system incorporates all the elements of a large facility at a scaled-down unit operation. It can be customized, automated, and used on-demand.
The prototype was successfully developed and tested at MIT Labs. The success of Pharmacy of Demand underscores the need for companies to develop unique solutions to overcome current challenges in the industry. While this event was hosted entirely virtually, there were numerous between-session opportunities for networking and informal engagement. It goes without saying that discussions such as these should be organized regularly in order to build momentum for innovation and encourage collaborative solutions to address industry challenges. Such initiatives are also a great way for the life science community to engage with leaders in the region.
Generous sponsorship from the following organizations helped make the 2021 MAST Virtual Showcase a success: Pureflows Inc, ICQ Consultants, McBee-Moore-Vaik IP, AstroPak, Integrated Project Services LLC, Boston Analytical, DPR Construction, and AES Clean Technology.
Nivedita Uday Hegdekar
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