University-Industry Engagement Week

New Infinity Lab at Cal State San Marcos nurtures biotech industry partnerships

By David Schwartz
Published: July 25th, 2023

When Thomas Lyle Temple began searching for lab space to house his biotech start-up Grann Pharmaceuticals, he hit a roadblock – not only was such space going for about $10K a month – enough to kill some ventures. And it was often shabby space at that. 

Then he learned about a new opportunity to rent room in Cal State University San Marcos’ Extended Learning building. The bright and modern lab on the fourth floor marked such a sharp contrast to what he had been seeing that he accepted on the spot. “It’s been wonderful,” Temple said. “This lab space is incredibly nice.”

Temple formed Grann with several classmates while they were still students at Whittier College, and this spring, before they had even graduated, the company moved into the Infinity Lab, a state-of-the-art research facility in the Extended Learning building. Just last week, Grann was joined in by a second tenant, Alcheme Bio, a small start-up founded by Vanessa Small, a member of the advisory council for CSUSM’s College of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

Though the Infinity Lab was designed as a teaching space, it hasn’t been used for that purpose since the building opened four years ago, largely because of the pandemic. So in 2020, CSUSM began to “reimagine” the lab by leasing space to cancer diagnostics company Volition, which stayed for about a year before growing out of the facility.

Now, CSUSM is doubling down on using the lab as an incubator of biotech start-ups, which ultimately may become industry partners and are required to engage with the university’s students. The effort is being led by Scott Gross, associate vice president of industry partnerships, and Betsy Read, the founder of the university’s biotechnology program, with an assist from Debora Galasso. Galasso is a 25-year veteran of the biotech industry who became a lecturer in a biotech Master’s program and is helping manage the lab’s expansion.

Galasso said CSUSM is the only university in San Diego County that is dipping its toe into a venture that is typically the province of for-profit companies. “Our goal is to demonstrate proof of concept,” Galasso said. “The space was sitting idle, so we wanted to see if we could create an environment that could benefit students. As education is our primary focus, we are not intending to make money, but to cover our costs while we develop an environment where students, faculty and staff can interact directly with entrepreneurs.”

The molecular and cellular biology lab features four benches (three for lease, one reserved for CSUSM students and faculty), a tissue culture room, and an impressive array of research equipment. The lab can accommodate three to five companies at a time, and renewable leases are for six-month terms, as befits a place that considers itself a biotech incubator.

“The idea would be to not have companies in for over two years,” Galasso said. “By that time, they should have secured angel or venture capital funding, been purchased or their intellectual property been purchased. Within two years, you should be growing enough that you need to go somewhere else.”

One of the Infinity Lab’s requirements is that students benefit from any industry partnership. That can take multiple forms, from students being hired as interns, to companies hosting classes in the lab to tell their story, to biotech entrepreneurs speaking on campus in a casual, roundtable style.

Grann, for example, has brought aboard two CSUSM master’s students as interns for the upcoming school year, and the students will learn the company’s process for re-expressing proteins using mRNA lipid nanoparticle technology.

Temple said the student requirement is a win-win proposition. His company has added interns who might end up being future employees, while CSUSM students gain real-world experience with a new venture.

Source: CSUSM News Center

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week