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“MARBIONC is an economic development tool. It’s all about education of a trained work-force, new jobs, new business, new products and new processes.”Daniel Baden, Director for the Center of Marine Science, University of North Carolina at Wilmington
With over 70 percent of the earth’s land mass covered by water and only two percent of oceanic biodiversity being studied, the opportunities in marine research are unlimited. To Daniel Baden, director of the Center for Marine Science and William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor for Marine Science at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, the economic possibilities are even greater.
To transform academic research in marine sciences into commercially viable products or technologies required an approach as novel as many of the scientific discoveries derived from the ocean. Establishing an organization that combines scientific disciplines like biochemistry, pharmacology, immunology, microbiology, toxicology and molecular biology along with research facilities and a business structure took five years to develop. Baden, along with Jeffrey Wright, Carl B. Brown Distinguished Professor of Marine Science at UNCW, took on the challenge. They launched MARBIONC or Marine Biotechnology in North Carolina to serve as the economic development and technology development engine of UNCW’s Center for Marine Science.
“MARBIONC is an economic development tool. It’s all about education of a trained work-force, new jobs, new business, new products and new processes,” said Baden, who is also executive principal of MARBIONC. “We put the initial team together and built around it for four years until we had enough inertia to go to the university and say this needs to be a program.”
Wright, principal and director of research, emphasizes that MARBIONC works because it’s based on the business principles of exploiting untapped resources to fill an unmet need in a niche with limited competition. “MARBIONC is built on the belief that the oceans are a huge resource that we haven’t properly exploited and explored. Yes, we fish them and do the traditional harvesting of fish and shellfish,” he said. “There’s more biodiversity in the ocean then there is on the land. The opportunity to discover new technologies is enormous. Since only half the states in the union have ocean frontage, immediately half of them aren’t in the game. Of the ones that do have a coastline, only half have a commitment and the resources.”
“There’s more biodiversity in the ocean then there is on the land. The opportunity to discover new technologies is enormous.Jeffery Wright, Principal and Director of Research, MARBIONC
MARBIONC’s commitment, so far, has led to a successful program at their fish hatcheries on Wrightsville Beach to raise black sea bass and flounder, and partners are developing the products for the commercial market. The mariculture program headed by Dr. Wade Watanabe has successfully tested the commercial use of their sea bass in Wilmington restaurants. At the Center’s 99,000 square foot facility in Myrtle Grove on the Intracoastal Waterway, the food industry can benefit from techniques developed to identify harmful bacteria in marine organisms and antidotes for seafood poisoning. The harmful toxins in Red Tide, an algal bloom of phytoplankton that releases toxins detrimental to humans and to marine ecosystems, can be helpful to humans. MARBIONC holds two issued patents for their use in treating cystic fibrosis and other pulmonary diseases. Other research will contribute to new drug candidates for cancer treatment, marine toxin exposures and neuronal regeneration.
MARBIONC’s business expertise is as strong as their research capabilities. As a faculty member at the University of Miami, Baden led a biotech start-up company. Wright worked in Canadian government and then in industry as part of a marine nutraceutical company. They added to their own business experience by bringing Steve Fontana, senior technology development officer, and Steve Eitelman, business development consultant, on board.
Eitelman, a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, worked for 26 years at AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals where he performed a range of work including product development. Fontana brings agrichemical research and development and legal experience as a patent attorney involved with intellectual property, research and development and product and corporate development. Together, Fontana and Eitelman work closely with researchers from the point of discovery on technology, product and business development initiatives.
“What makes us different from the vast number of universities and businesses is that we have the personnel and focus for the development state,” said Fontana. “Universities look at discovery and publish, then move on to once again discover and publish. Our products are not publications, they are products and processes. The excitement here is taking discovery through to the next stages.”
Business acumen helped MARBIONC form partnerships with Wilmington-based aaiPharma Inc. and ABI/Sciex to accelerate technology transfer of their discoveries to the marketplace. Along with funding from UNCW, the State of North Carolina, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and their Sea Grant program, MARBIONC has a broad base off support.
“The difference is that we aren’t academics trying to move into business,” Baden said. “We have people with expertise at all levels of the organization. This gives us the key advantage.”
They’ve taken their model of marine research and business development and turned it into a Business of Marine Biotechnology (BoMB) degree. “We train post-docs in our labs to do the research. At the same time they earn their MBA at UNCW’s Cameron School of Business,” Baden said. “When they come out they are ‘dangerous’ because they understand both marine biotechnology and business.”
Graduates from the program have gone on to jobs at the Mayo Clinic and companies in the Research Triangle Park. BoMB students conduct research that supports MARBIONC research in developing specific growth-stage foods for the flounder and sea bass and in the application of marine antitoxins research regarding cystic fibrosis. Another graduate from the program developed a rapid detection kit for oyster pathogens; the niche market being the mandate that oysters be pathogen-free prior to interstate transport.
Underlying MARBIONC is the shared excitement of the unknown. “The tip of the iceberg is barely showing,” Fontana said. “There are a number of marine-based products that we use in every day life like cosmetics, food products, nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals, but the excitement here is that we’re just starting to realize the potential of the market. That’s the driving force. We don’t know what we’ll have tomorrow.”
Everyday brings the challenge of evaluating the potential of what their research is unveiling. “Nothing goes by us without us considering if we can make it into a product or a process,” Baden said. “We embrace the concept of permanent innovation, and actively seek out those disruptive technologies that will revolutionize our industry.”