Biomanufacturing Institute Sets New Framework for Collaboration and New Model to Fund Innovation

Biomanufacturing industry gathers at IBBR to learn about NIIMBL and funding opportunities

Working together is not something that big biopharmaceutical companies are necessarily known for. Working to solve commercially relevant problems is not something that academics are known for either.  NIIMBL (The National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals) seeks to challenge the status quo to change the future, and Maryland has invested heavily in being on their team to do so!

On Thursday, November 30th, hundreds from the local Biotech industry gathered at IBBR on the Universities at Shady Grove Campus to learn about NIIMBL, the impact it will have on the region and how their companies can participate.  Members from NIIMBL, Department of Commerce, NIST, IBBR and BREP were there to meet new potential members and take questions.

This program represents a kind of a paradigm shift in how industry, academia and government aim to work together collaboratively, so it’s not unexpected that there are lots of questions and uncertainty, even concern with what it’s all about.  We get it. Se we’re here to help clear the water.

So, what the heck is NIIMBL?

NIIMBL is a brand new membership based institute that was started with a five (5) year, $70M fund from NIST. The mission is to bring all of the stakeholders together on the same team to accelerate biopharmaceutical manufacturing innovation, fundamentally advancing U.S. competitiveness in this industry.  Their main goal is to foster national growth of small and medium enterprises (SME’s) and large businesses through innovation and training a highly skilled, best in class workforce.  Sounds good so far, right?

To accomplish such a large, complicated mission and to foster a unique culture of collaboration NIIMBL has established a unique membership model a system where all members can participate and benefit from the collective output. Industry, States, Universities and nonprofits from across the US, both large and small, can pay an annual membership that ranges from $1,000 to $750K to join the consortium, build partnerships and apply for innovation grants.  As a result, their available pool of funding has grown from that $70M federal seed round to $140M that is now being awarded to teams of NIIMBL members who come together to propose new ways to solve industry challenges.

By pooling funds and creating a sort of fraternity of like minded, future focused stakeholders in biomanufacturing, NIIMBL hopes to redefine collaborative innovation and usher in a new wave of opportunity for the US.  The first project call for grant applications is being released this December and would be awarded as early as March to address technology innovation, process improvement or workforce training.  Project teams that are made up of big and small companies, nonprofits, states and universities (the more collaborative the better) are now submitting proposals for grants of $1-2M over 18 months. NIIMBL means business and aims to make rapid impact!

What’s Maryland’s role?  It’s BIG. So Big!

Maryland is one of a few states who are founding, Tier 1 members of NIIMBL.  The Maryland Department of Commerce has made significant investments, well beyond the membership fee, to ensure that our region can capitalize on this tremendous opportunity and our many small and midsize companies can find ways to participate.

The University System of Maryland has two founding co-PI’s (read article) on the original NIIMBL grant who represent the University’s Tier 1 members. They include William Bentley, PhD, Director of the university’s Robert E. Fischell Institute for Biomedical Devices, and Stephen W. Hoag, PhD, professor in the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy (UMSOP) Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

A Center of Excellence in Biomanufacturing was created at Maryland’s Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research (IBBR), lead by  Thomas R. Fuerst, PhD, IBBR Director and Professor. This new facility was made possible by further investment from the MD Dept of Commerce and Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation. The core of this new center will be the Biotech Research and Education Program (BREP), run by Ben Woodard, Director. Located at IBBR in a 9,000 sf GMP facility, BREP aims to be the premier research facility for bioprocess development, research collaboration and education. Below is a model of how the center will operate.

The University of Maryland Center of Excellence in Regulatory Science and Innovation (M-CERSI), the first federally-supported research center between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the University of Maryland’s two preeminent research campuses, will also support NIIMBL researchers in the efficient regulatory advancement of their innovations.

NIST (National Institute for Standards and Technologies) is located right here in Maryland! Not only did NIST provide the initial funding, but they have a successful existing framework for collaboration and partnering with companies in biomanufacturing.

Why does NIIMBL require membership?

NIIMBL is a membership based collaborative model so only members can participate in the grants and other benefits.  It’s a bit unique of a concept for some to swallow, but this isn’t your traditional Federally funded grant program.  It’s paid for collectively, and largely by industry with a mandate to be self sustainable in five years.  That won’t happen if everyone gets in for free. The pay to play model isn’t unique though.  After all, many companies join trade associations, like BIO, AdvaMed or PhRMA, at a price of $1,000 – $50,000 annually in return for networking, career training, and big annual meetings that still cost you thousands more.  NIIMBL offers you much of the same benefits that they do, but instead of spending your dues on a big expensive annual meeting, hundreds of staff and technology infrastructure, they give it all back to their members in an exclusive, but competitive grant process.  Not a bad deal if you ask me.

An investment in membership also shows a commitment to a shared mission, and establishes a culture of equality and teamwork.  Remember, this is all kinda new for most of the members. Academia and Industry have historically rarely been on the same page and often in conflict with one another ideologically.  However, after their first collaborative working session, many of the PI’s and academics were saying that it was the first time that they ever worked with industry, or heard directly from them about the challenges they face.  Likewise, suppliers were sitting at the table with manufacturers who were openly sharing their challenges and collectively discussing innovations to solve them.  So it appears that NIIMBL has gotten Dogs and Cats living together, but without mass hysteria.

So, how can you participate?

You can contact NIIMBL directly to learn more about becoming a member and see if your ideas fit with their mission before ponying up the membership fee.  The best starting point is their website or here in Maryland you can reach out to the Maryland Department of Commerce office of BioHealth and Life Sciences.

3 Tips to engaging with NIIMBL:

  1. Do your research. Review the NIIMBL website, google recent news to learn about who the players are and what programs are already underway, and ask around.
  2. Get to know the Tier one members.  Reach out to those who are involved such as the State of MD, Dr. Bently’s office, IBBR, BREP or others that are NIIMBL members and talk to them about their projects and NIIMBL’s focus areas. See if it aligns with what you are working on or the challenges that you’re facing.  After all, NIIMBL is designed to solve REAL industry driven biomanufacturing challenges so if you have some to share, do so.
  3. Be persistent and aware.  Be aware that this is a brand new organization so they are capacity building and working hard to execute their mission for their members.  I’ve met a few of the staff and all are committed and mission oriented who want to make a difference.  Bringing on new members is very important, but just like you, they only have so much time in their day.  So, be professionally persistent if you don’t hear back right away, try other avenues and use your relationships as starting points.

The first project call is out with proposals due in a few weeks, so if you haven’t done so already then it’s time to get your organization involved.   If you miss this round, don’t worry. NIIMBL isn’t going anywhere so start exploring how you can become a member and work collectively to contribute to a more competitive US Biomanufacturing industry.

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