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East Campus: Where Academe & Business Mix It Up
Entrepreneur James Burton, right, shares a laugh with Eugene Schuler, UAlbany's director of technology development, on the East Campus. The Empire State Plaza is in the background.

Entrepreneur James Burton, right, shares a laugh with Eugene Schuler, UAlbany's director of technology development, on the East Campus. The Empire State Plaza is in the background.

When scientist and entrepreneur James Burton was looking for a place to locate his fledgling business, he first looked all around his hometown Boston area.

Only on the University at Albany’s East Campus, however, did he find what he wanted, and his new company, Psyche Pharmaceuticals, Inc., became a part of the unusual synergistic mix of academe and business that characterizes the campus.

“There’s a sense of community here. There’s a very comfortable sense that if there is anything you need, there is someone you can ask,” says Burton, whose firm is developing a new process for making pharmaceutical drugs. “This community makes working possible.”

Access to high-tech facilities, along with a welcoming environment, attracted entrepreneur James Burton to UAlbany's East Campus.

Psyche Pharmaceuticals is one of 14 companies located on the East Campus, along with the University’s School of Public Health, University research centers, and such other specialized facilities as UAlbany’s new laboratory used to train students in forensic molecular biology.

Most of the companies on the East Campus are biotechnology or pharmaceutical-related businesses in the so-called “incubator” stage, and while University-sponsored incubators are not unusual, the setup of the East Campus definitely is.

“On our East Campus and also at our Center for Environmental Sciences and Technology Management (CESTM), we put research faculty, academic programs and private research-driven companies right in the same buildings, not just on the same campus or in an adjacent technology park. This approach creates a remarkable synergy,” says Eugene Schuler, UAlbany’s director of technology development.

Creating that synergy was a major goal in 1996 when the University acquired a 58-acre parcel of the former Sterling Winthrop property in East Greenbush, ten miles east of UAlbany’s main campus. That year the University moved its School of Public Health to the site renamed as the East Campus, began its business incubation program there, and began developing plans for research facilities to build University and regional strength in biotechnology.

Today, the campus is home to UAlbany’s research programs in genomics and biomedical sciences. It boasts state-of-the-art core research facilities, over 600 people are employed at the campus, and state funding has enabled UAlbany to purchase an additional 29 acres of land at the site to further advance East Campus growth as a biomedical and biotechnology center. Existing space is almost fully occupied.

All in all, in Burton’s view, it’s the ideal environment for supporting what he wants to do: namely, chemical synthesis of proteins, particularly pharmaceutical proteins.

“One key thing about the space here — it’s designed for chemists. A lot of the space in Boston and Worcester is designed for biologists. There’s something very comfortable about being in this lab for a chemist,” says Burton.

Beyond that, he found such vital high-tech equipment as a mass spectrometer — and such essential low-tech tools as dishwashing equipment — available for him to share. And, he says, he found a welcoming environment, “people really willing to cooperate.”

“(University President) Karen Hitchcock’s ability to look outside is very unusual. Not many university presidents get involved, as she does, in helping outside companies and in enriching their universities by recruiting outside companies,” he says.

Burton moved into his lab space on the East Campus in 2001, and most every day that is where you will find him. He has a grant from the National Institutes of Health under the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program — “our $225,000 grant was about three times the average SBIR,” he notes — and he is working to demonstrate the economic feasibility of synthesizing proteins through chemical methods.

Today, pharmaceutical proteins, such as insulin, TPA, EPO-gen, and Embrel, are made by cloning through biological techniques. “The DNA that specifies a particular protein is put into either E. coli cells or what are called Cho (Chinese hamster ovary) cells, and the cells grow up and make the protein. All pharmaceutical proteins are made that way,” explains Burton.

Chemical techniques, however, hold great promise for the next generation of pharmaceutical proteins, he says.

“Right now, when you make a protein, all proteins are pretty much what nature gives us. You can’t modify them because there’s not enough variability in the amino acids. You only have a set of 20 amino acids you can use to make a protein. That’s all you can put in with biological techniques,” says Burton. “But with chemical techniques you can put in thousands of modifications. So if you want something that changes the activity a little bit or makes it a little more stable or gives it a little longer half-life, you can do that chemically.”

Burton said there are three or four areas in which he can apply this technology. “One possibility is we could synthesize proteins for pharmaceutical companies. The market for pharmaceutical proteins is $25 billion and grows at 15 percent or more each year, so there is a lot of potential there. We could do drug design. Probably the most interesting possibility is the development of ways to attach proteins to chips. Which one we come down on is where we will need the business community’s help,” he said.

 

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