The first bird

Bill Gnade / Sentinel Staff

Gene Garcia of Keene is the founder of Lash Laboratory Solutions, a startup looking to develop a better way to test raw milk for bacteria, yeast, mold and pathogens. The startup is the first business in BiO NeSTe, the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship’s new biotech incubator.

Gene Garcia is a fan of raw milk. Drinking it seems to help his son’s allergies, he says. To him, it’s healthier than the pasteurized stuff and can be just as safe.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration begs to differ. So do many state regulators. Federal regulations prohibit trade in unpasteurized dairy across state lines. And as of 2011, 33 states either banned the sale of raw milk or restricted it to the farms on which it’s produced, according to a survey from the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

Garcia, of Keene, hopes to change that. A quality manager at W.S. Badger Co. in Gilsum, Garcia has a Ph.D. in biology and, as a side project, founded a company called Lash Laboratory Solutions. The startup’s first project is developing a better way to test raw milk for bacteria, yeast, mold and pathogens, which he says could slash the waiting time for results from days to hours.

Garcia said he hopes an improved test can convince regulators to ease restrictions on raw milk, boosting the dairy industry.

But Garcia’s ambitions for the company don’t stop there. He also thinks Lash Laboratory Solutions can help move Keene toward a vibrant biotech industry.

Garcia’s company is the first to participate in BiO NeSTe, a new biotech incubator run through the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship in Keene. Garcia is also on the incubator’s advisory board.

“The goal is to establish a biotech sector in Keene,” said Mary Ann Kristiansen, the executive director of the center, which also runs an incubator for general startups.

Kristiansen, Garcia and others involved in the incubator say Keene — with its low rent, high quality of life and proximity to several colleges and universities — can attract fledgling biotech firms and share in a high-growth industry that tends to cluster in urban areas and near elite research institutions.

A growing industry

The biotech industry comprises companies that partner technology with the life sciences to do research and produce products, including pharmaceuticals, medical devices and food-science innovations.

“Its potential for growth is, I think, higher than most other industries,” said Christina A. Ferrari, a lawyer for the Manchester firm Bernstein Shur who works with biotech companies. “You’re seeing these biotech hubs arise across the country in specific locations, and when that happens it really transforms an entire area.”

Ferrari, a former medical researcher and member of a biotech-focused subgroup of the trade group N.H. High Tech Council, said the Granite State has at least 300 biotech and related companies.

Ferrari said Keene has the basic ingredients for biotech. It’s an attractive place for skilled professionals to live. Keene State College and other institutions produce an educated workforce. The city has space for new companies to move in and expand. Established hubs in Boston and Manchester and near Dartmouth College aren’t too far away, opening up opportunities for collaboration. And the Hannah Grimes Center and others actively support business development.

Kristiansen adds another selling point: affordability. Many companies don’t need to be right next door to Dartmouth College or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and they’ll pay less for lab and office space in Keene.

Keene, she said, has an opportunity to benefit from those more specialized biotech clusters. That includes the recently launched Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute in Manchester, which has received nearly $300 million in federal, university and private funding to make regenerative medicine — essentially, engineering tissues and organs — feasible on a large scale.

“Those types of operations need other labs that do some of the more rote work, and they pay good money to get that work done,” she said.

“We’ll be part of the ecosystem,” she said.

Growing an incubator

The idea for an incubator came together after Garcia and his wife, Julie, both Keene State grads, moved back to the area a few years ago.

At the time, according to Kristiansen, Julie Garcia — a scientist whose work involves shepherding ideas from R&D to commercial viability — began hearing about lost manufacturing jobs and hopes of economic revitalization.

She began talking up biotech to Kristiansen — a non-scientist who at first thought the industry sounded too complicated. “Slowly, she convinced me that biotech is not rocket science,” Kristiansen said.

They started putting together what became the advisory board of BiO NeSTe — Kristiansen; the Garcias; Roy D. Wallen, a Brookline-based consultant with expertise in the health care technology field; and Kate Hickey, the center’s program director.

The panel blends general and specialized business knowledge with scientific expertise, Kristiansen said.

A key aim of the incubator is connecting entrepreneurs with the resources they need to navigate complex legal and commercial terrain, Gene Garcia said.

Sometimes, he said, companies cook up something brilliant in the lab, turn it into a product, and then learn they haven’t followed the proper regulatory steps over the years-long development process.

“Part of the role that the incubator fills is it lets the scientists who are developing these (products) know what the regulatory landscape is, what they have to be doing, what their best practices are,” he said.

Wallen sees the incubator reaching a “critical mass” of about four to five companies. That will allow economies of scale not available to a single startup.

“Renting a laboratory on a full-time basis for running experiments on a part-time basis is not effective,” he said. “But if you can have three or four or five companies that can time-share that same space, that’s a contribution the incubator can make.” The same goes for equipment, patent lawyers and accountants.

Kristiansen hopes at least some graduates of the incubator set down roots in Keene, putting the city on the biotech map and attracting others.

Meanwhile, Garcia’s Lash Laboratory Solutions will serve as a trial run, allowing the BiO NeSTe team to iron out the kinks.

“The neat thing about this BiO NeSTe group is it … gives us a model, and for us it’s a nice chance to try it out,” he said. “Even if (the business) doesn’t end up coming to fruition or become a viable option, we still provided the group with something.”

Paul Cuno-Booth can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1409, or pbooth@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PCunoBoothKS