SANTA CRUZ >> Blocks from the beach, university researchers and entrepreneurs are teaming up to catch what they see as the next big wave: Biotechnology.
Called Startup Sandbox, the UC Santa Cruz-affiliated nonprofit is an incubator that hopes to hatch biotech startups. It bills itself as the first of its kind in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, and its organizers hope their affiliation with, and proximity to, UCSC’s renowned Genomics Institute and related research programs will give the west side Santa Cruz incubator an edge on its Silicon Valley counterparts.
On Thursday, the nonprofit debuted its new 3,500-square-foot “wet” lab, a specialized facility designed as a safe environment for biological research using sensitive — and sometimes dangerous — chemicals and enzyme concoctions.
For now, the wet lab looks like a large concrete-floored room lined with equipment: autoclaves, freezers, centrifuges, and, yes, incubators. But within a few days time, once the floor is painted with a chemical-resistant coating, it will be filled with 40 work stations, each equipped with their own chemical fume hood and other essential equipment.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday afternoon, Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, celebrated the opening of the facility with the incubator’s staff and top UCSC officials.
“The last half of the 20th century was really defined by digitization,” said Lou Pambianco, a veteran president of the Startup Sandbox board, during brief remarks. “The first half of the 21st century is being defined by bioscience.”
Valued $370 billion in 2017, market analyst Grand View Research predicts the global biotech industry could grow to $727 billion by 2025.
Startup Sandbox first opened its doors in April 2017, and houses 13 biotech startups. Cruz Foam is trying replace polystyrene foam, commonly used in containers and packing materials, with a biodegradable alternative derived from shrimp shells. Pinpoint Science is developing a handheld tool to diagnose infectious diseases, such as Zika and Ebola.
Five more startups have been waiting in the wings for the wet lab to open and are set to move in in June, according to Judy Owen, chairwoman of the nonprofit’s board. Among them, UCSC professor David Deamer, whose theory about the volcanic origins of life earned him the cover of the August issue of Scientific American.
At full capacity, the incubator could house 30 to 40 startups, Owen said.
Funding for the incubator came by way of a 2016 state bill, A.B. 2664, that doled out $2.2 million to each UC campus to accelerate economic development and support innovation and entrepreneurship. Startup Sandbox received about $700,000 and is seeking additional public and private support to continue expanding.
“The whole objective of this is really the idea of the university providing a soft-landing opportunity for our entrepreneurs to help them bring research from the lab to the market into our community, as opposed to anywhere else in the nation or world,” said Mohamed Abousalem, UCSC’s assistant vice chancellor for research.