UT, city of Austin to open wet lab for biotechnology

Collin Eaton

In an effort to bolster new life-science technology companies, the city of Austin is helping UT free up scarce and much-needed laboratory space for local companies to test their ideas.

The 800-square-foot UTech Dorm Room in the College of Pharmacy will launch next week after months of negotiation between UT, the Austin Technology Incubator and the city of Austin, which is footing the bill for the open lab space.

Mark Nathan, chief of staff for Mayor Lee Leffingwell, said critical wet-lab space is nearly impossible to secure in Austin, but the mayor believes the city should support biotechnology companies because they are a critical part of the economy.

To get the venture started, Austin’s economic development fund is pitching $55,000 toward equipment, lab preparation and part of a new lab manager’s salary. But Cindy WalkerPeach, director of the Austin Technology Incubator, said this is just the first step toward providing local ventures with necessary laboratory space.

“The pharmacy space is fairly small and can only accommodate one company at a time, and there are many, many companies that would like to have access to lab space,” WalkerPeach said. “I submitted a grant to start looking at bringing new wet-lab space to Austin — it’s very exciting.”

Researchers typically use wet labs for experiments with chemicals and water. To test the commercial viability of their technology, companies will use the UTech Dorm Room which is named after Michael Dell’s foray into the computer world from his UT dorm room.

Hall Martin, director of the Austin Entrepreneur Network, said because wet labs are so scarce in Austin, many companies outsource research at a high cost because it is more expensive to pay for wet-lab space.

Martin said UT labs are almost always in use, and even if a company can get access to lab space, they run the risk of having to share intellectual property rights with the University.
According to a study by the Center for American Progress, UT ranks low compared to other top universities in sharing intellectual property rights of its researchers’ technologies with entrepreneurs.

But the UTech Dorm Room arrangement allows companies the freedom to do research without the risk of giving up intellectual property.

In similar university-company models, companies have hired faculty to help them do research, said Janet Walkow, director of Drug Dynamics Institute and one of the key instigators of the project. Students will also have the opportunity to work with the companies, such as in marketing, she said.If students and faculty form a company, rather than doing research already funded by a grant, they too can use the lab for commercialization uses, Walkow said.

“While it’s very attractive to [companies], we saw it as a wonderful financial and intellectual benefit for our faculty because it would provide a way for them to collaborate on projects,” she said. “So, it brings money into the University.”