LA BioMed’s Torrance Medical Research Institute: An Incubator of Innovation

David Meyer

The Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute (LA BioMed), recently renamed The Lundquist Institute, is an independent non-profit biomedical research organization founded in 1952. Located adjacent to the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, the new center will serve as a premier research facility for biomedical innovation and a central hub for LA County’s growing life science industry. VXNews recently toured the new facility with the Institute’s president and CEO, David Meyer PhD, and Sr. VP for Business Development and Tech Transfer, Keith Hoffman PhD, who discuss the Institute’s life-saving research and role as a biotech incubator and the geographic advantages of its expanding South Bay location

David Meyer:  LA BioMed is an independent nonprofit research institute with more than 120 principal investigators and 400 translationally focused researchers in total, many of whom are identifying and solving problems they experience first-hand in clinics at the 570-bed teaching hospital—academically affiliated with the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA—that is the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. 

Let me tell you a little bit about LA BioMed in numbers. We started in 1952, and we’ve been in operation 67 years. We have well over 100 research groups doing everything from very small studies on patient data all the way up to multimillion dollar cardiac, pulmonary, or HIV medicine research projects. We have about 600 projects going on at any given time and it varies from year to year. We have grants from federal sources such as the NIH, and DOD to support the researcher’s projects. The other sources supporting the researchers are corporate-sponsorships from pharmaceutical companies to do clinical trials. We also have financial support from our tech transfer revenues that come from licensing our discoveries, either to our own start-up companies or to biotech companies. And the last source, of course, is philanthropy. We publish a lot in prominent journals, and we’re cited a lot in these publications.

Protecting our intellectual property and licensing it is a big part of our business plan. We have over 200 issued patents. We file for about 15 patents annually, and in the last three years we had 24 new patents issued. Unfortunately, not all of them turn into money, but it is our intellectual property; it is protected. If we can find someone who wants to buy into it, we will. We’ve spun off 14 companies in the last 12 years, and it’s a big range of companies.

What our doctors are seeing in the clinic is what they’re studying in their labs at LA BioMed. What LA BioMed does is, as quickly and efficiently as possible, protect and commercialize investigator’s discoveries. We have an intellectual property review committee that screens invention disclosures. Whenever someone files a disclosure – a new discovery or new invention – the committee looks at it immediately. They meet every other month. If there’s something very important they’ll meet sooner. If they think it’s important enough, we will file the necessary paperwork for a patent. We have on occasion filed provisional patents within 24 hours after disclosure. And, if the best way to actually license the product is to do a commercial venture or start-up, founded by our own investigators—we have incorporated new companies within a week.

So, we are very agile, nimble, and entrepreneurial for several reasons. One is that we encourage our investigators to think along the lines of innovation. The people here don’t have to teach a lot; they don’t have a lot of other responsibilities. They’re free to think in those terms, and we’re here to help them. Ultimately, we want their discoveries to get back to the clinic as quickly as possible, because only then is it going to have an impact. It’s great to theorize about some treatment for a disease, but unless you roll up your sleeves, get in the lab, and do something, it’ll never get back to the patient.

Who makes the decision on whether or to whom a product is licensed?

David Meyer:  “Whether” is actually up to the investigators, “to whom” is left to our office of Business Development Technology Transfer. If the scientists don’t want to start a company, we will attempt to license their technology to someone else, yet still be on the receiving end of royalties. And by the way, the inventors get 30 percent of anything we make, so it’s a very great incentive.           

How do you compare how LA BioMed is commercializing biomedical research with what public companies, such as Medtronics, does?

David Meyer: Medtronics, Apple, and other concerns are coming up with numerous devices, but in the area of cardiac monitoring, they are not as in-depth in many cases (as are LA BioMed’s patented monitoring devices). If you own an Apple Watch, it’ll tell you your pulse and if you have atrial fibrillation, but that’s it. We’ve developed miniaturized full-blown ECG devices suitable for pediatric or even neonatal use as well.

Fifty percent of a person’s likelihood to suffer from a common disease resides in ones genes. Type II Diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, kidney disease, Crohn’s, osteoporosis, COPD, etc. are all “common diseases”.  If you have any of these, it’s more likely due to genetics. That’s why family history is so important.

Now, we have something that’s based on an individual’s genetics called personalized medicine or precision medicine. This is the way that things are going to go in the future. We already have small and even portable devices that will take a sample, do all of the chemistry, sequence your entire genome, and feed the results into a computer. It’s predictive because we can diagnose the real possibility. Years in advance we can make a diagnosis of something that you are not suffering from; it’s preventative because we’ll put you on medicine that will reduce the odds of getting whatever it is; and it’s personalized because it’s for you specifically. The right treatment for the right person at the right time.

Studies up to now were mostly performed on individuals of European origin, so now we have to reach out to include other ethnic groups, and based on the genetic data we and colleagues are collecting, determine a genetic risk analysis specific for members of each ethnic group.  We then can use the individual's genetic risk analyses to decide who should be screened early for coronary artery disease or osteoporosis, and to whom preventative therapies should be applied.

Who owns the genetic data that’s collected by LA BioMed researchers? 

David Meyer: Right now it depends on who’s collected the data. Most places will make it public, or share it, and that’s what we would do. If it happens to be a biotech company, like Regeneron, that may be a little bit different. My feeling is that the patient receives their own data, which they can then use for any purpose—that's the way it should be.  But right now it's a question of access to data in the aggregate. We use the data in numerous analyses to come up with risk factors for a number of common diseases. We already have data on tens of thousands of samples, not only in European origin individuals, but in African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. This is one of the strengths of the Harbor-UCLA campus.

In short, the future paradigm still starts at the bedside. The expression ‘from the bench to the bedside’ is not the way it is. You don’t start in the lab and say ‘I’m going to cure cancer.’ We start in the hospital, and then go to the lab. Then discoveries are made. From discovery to intellectual property to start-up to incubator to tech park and back to the bedside--our goal is to have all of this on our 72 acre campus.

Keith Hoffman: The entire 3rd floor of the new Lundquist state-of-the-art medical research building has been built out as a bioscience incubator.  Something everyone is increasingly talking about, regarding life science in LA, is that we have more bioscience jobs than San Diego and almost the same amount as San Francisco. Within LA, we love the location of our institute as we are right in the middle of what is emerging as the “405 Bioscience Corridor,” referring to the freeway that connects UC Irvine down south to UCLA up north. Here at The Lundquist Institute, we are right in the middle of that corridor. We have major centers of research in this area, and a significant number of companies populating the corridor.

What is the value of LA BioMed’s incubator being in the SouthBay?

Keith Hoffman: I go to meetings near UC Irvine; it takes me just 35 minutes to get there. I go to meetings at UCLA all the time; it’s just 20 to 40 minutes north. From a practical standpoint, if it took two to three hours to make those trips, that’d take up the whole day. Our first three companies that were in our first incubator were all from UCLA. It’s close enough, and it’s bound by the 405, which makes day meetings quite doable.

This entire eastern side of the campus is the Harbor-UCLA medical center, and the western flank is where we hope to develop LA’s first true biotechnology industrial park. The County is spending $1.9 billion on the eastern side of the campus. They’ll start with a new parking structure and go on to develop both in-patient and support facilities and ultimately a new hospital, with a goal to have  it completed by 2026. I believe it will be the official hospital for the 2028 Olympics, so they need to have it running well before the games begin. This is going to be a great transformation for the whole campus, and we are really focused on our 12 acres in the middle of the campus, as well as 15 acres on the western flank for the biotechnology park.It’s my job to help the companies that we spin out. A very important part of our annual budget is derived from technology transfer revenue (royalties, milestones, equity sales, etc.), so it is imperative for us to do everything we can to help startups that are born at The Lundquist Institute. With regard to our product pipeline about three-quarters of the companies are spinoffs from The Lundquist Institute, and a quarter are companies to which we out-license technologies. Depending on the technology, some might be better to spin out here, while some are better to place with larger companies.

How is the decision made to either spin off a company or out-license the technology?

Keith Hoffman: That’s a good question. It’s always a collaborative decision. The researchers typically don’t have the startup background that I— being in the industry for 25 years— have, so they can lean upon my office to help them with those types of decisions. Generally, they just want to see the technology move forward – be it via a startup formation or an out-licensing deal to an existing company.

What about your incubators?

Keith Hoffman: We have an abundance of assets on campus that are desirable to startups. We typically conduct approximately 100 clinical trials per year, and we’ve completed over 1,000, which is a huge asset for companies that want to come here and do human research. What’s also really important to young startups is that they can come in and rent one six-foot bench without the need for their own equipment, as we have $1 million in shared equipment already in our main incubator space. The other thing we have, of course, is somewhere between $3 million to $6 million in shared equipment on the rest of the campus, and the companies can have access to that as well. They can come in with nothing, and have everything they need to start their company.

We hired BioLabs to be the operator of our main incubator space, and they know how to do this; they know what equipment the companies actually use, they know how to do the billing, they have an expansive, and relevant network, and they know the needs of these companies. We own the space, and they are the operators.

Companies are usually in these incubators for a maximum of two years, then they’re ready to either get their series A or series B funding, and push their company further. At that point it no longer makes much economic sense for them for them to have just one or two benches— they usually need 2,500 to 5,000 square feet at that point. The potential biotech park is going to be a graduation space on this campus for these companies. There are nine other incubators around LA County, and there’s almost no place for any of the companies to go when they graduate whichever incubator they are in. So, they leave LA and they go to San Diego, San Francisco, or Cambridge. The County government doesn’t want that and we don’t want that. There’s only around 20,000 square feet available in the whole County for companies that are graduating from incubators, so that’s why we think we’re going to have a lot of demand from companies graduating from incubators once we build the biotech park. 

When LA County economic development specialists talk about biotech, many describe the county as a leaky bucket – with young companies choosing to leave to grow.

Keith Hoffman: We have talent here, in spades. It used to be that there were few, if any, bioscience investors interested in funding LA-based biotech startups, but that’s not true anymore. The main issue now for startups is that that they don’t have any space to grow into, as we spoke about earlier, and that is why they have been leaving LA. We think that is already changing.

The 15-acre biotechnology park, on which we’ll hopefully be breaking ground in 2020, can be part of the needed space solution. We currently envision it starting with a fist building of ~80,000 square feet to start. The site is CEQA-cleared for 250,000 square feet and, in addition, there might also be some square footage cleared for retail space that could be added to that 250,000.

Would more incubator space at USC, for example, help you market LA BioMed’s new incubator campus or just be competition?

Keith Hoffman: It would help because it would make LA even more of a bioscience destination. We welcome that. It’s not competition because they’re too far away from us. I really hope they pull it off. It’s really interesting to be in the incubator business in LA right now, because we’re all helping each other out. We’re sending tenants to each other. There is no competition yet.

David Meyer: The good news is that Los Angeles County has already included LA BioMed’s tech park in their master plan, and as Keith said, we already have an EIR with CEQA clearance for 250,000 square feet of buildout. That’s a tremendous head start. We’ve already submitted a lease proposal to the county to determine whether they can lease it to us for next to nothing like they did here. Then, we will sublease it to a developer who will design, build, and actually manage the facility. Then, whatever they pay in rent would go to the county with a cut for us. 

What do you make of the argument often made that Los Angeles had a shot of being a center of biomedical research and commercialization but lost out because other cities, NY’s Roosevelt Island, San Francisco’s Mission Bay, or elsewhere, dedicate specific plots of land to create biotech hubs or incubators. Meanwhile, Los Angeles being Los Angeles, biomedical assets are spread out all over the metropolis?

David Meyer: That’s exactly right. In La Jolla, you have the Mesa which has, on one side, Scripps, Salk, and UCSD, and on the other side, a bunch of research institutes; it is just a perfect place all lined up. San Francisco has South San Francisco and now Mission Bay, which is where UCSF moved a significant amount of their research operations. So it’s a research intense environment and a lot of money was spent to actually make it a multifunctional campus. You have everything from restaurants and basketball courts to incubator space and departments from UCSF compact in one space. In LA County, you can’t have a central area, but you can have hubs. This would be the first hub; we have the hospital; we have the research; we have the incubator; we have the tech park. Our advantage is that it’s all on 72 acres.

LA County government commissioned a feasibility study that showed a need for lab space, venture capital, a workforce, and marketing to make a hub develop. We have the workforce; we outdo the Bay Area and San Diego put together, in terms of PhD graduates in STEM areas. Lab space is rapidly being taken care of through nine incubators now. What’s missing is the venture capital, which is now, thankfully, coming in. You need something to market, so marketing might be a while, but we’re already marketing what we have here. You can’t market all of LA, and due to the surface area of LA County, you don’t have a lot of choice.

In terms of marketing, how does LA BioMed’s geography— outside the attention span of Downtown LA, the West Side, and Pasadena—affect your ability to communicate your assets?

Keith Hoffman: When we opened our first incubator in our Martin building, I was amazed that we had three companies from UCLA ready to relocate as soon as we opened the doors, and we didn’t advertise it at all. It was just tech transfer offices and word of mouth with no marketing. Historically, we have not done a good job of branding the Institute in general, and so we’re working on that.  Our new facilities and plans are going to help us a lot. We have an incubator network now, so getting the word out is simpler than before. We just have marketing in a systematic way to tech transfer offices across the Country so they can know about us, and know that we have incubator space available. Having BioLabs here to manage the incubator, that was a big deal for LA. That helps put LA, and us, on the bioscience map in a significant way. 


“Our goal is to commercialize biomedical innovations developed on our 72 acre campus; …We start in the hospital.. at the bedside, and then go to the lab where discoveries are made…and ultimately back to the bedside.” —David Meyer