The Hannah Grimes Center, with a small group of local scientists and business leaders, is brainstorming how to build a biotech sector in Keene.
And they believe that starting a biotech incubator in the city is the best way to do it.
The Hannah Grimes Center already runs a business incubator program that serves about 15 startup companies at a time. It gives those companies support and resources to develop, and office space at low rates.
But the center is now considering opening a lab and incubator program that could serve three to four biotech ventures, according to Executive Director Mary Ann Kristiansen.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to make sure that, into the future, we have industries that are viable and growing,” she said.
Kristiansen stressed that the biotech incubator is still in its “exploratory phase,” and that there are no plans for it to open anytime soon. However, she said, there’s a space in downtown Keene that the center would consider leasing if it decides to create the lab and start the incubator. She didn’t specify where that space is.
Biotech companies use cellular and biomolecular processes to develop products and technologies that can be used in industries, including health care and agriculture. The companies are typically concentrated in urban areas, such as greater Boston and San Francisco.
But, Kristiansen said, even though Keene’s in a rural area, there are many scientists locally with the talent and ideas to make the sector successful in the Monadnock Region.
“We have some people regionally that have the skills (who) would welcome the opportunity to work locally,” Kristiansen said.
Roy Wallen, chief executive officer of Directional Healthcare Advisor, said the Monadnock Region has lots to offer biotech companies, even though none has set up shop here yet.
Directional Healthcare Advisors is a Brookline-based advisory services company that works with biotech and medical technology companies across the country.
Wallen is one of the experts who has been discussing and developing the prospect of the biotech incubator with Kristiansen.
Opening such a facility in Keene would allow biotech companies to stretch their research dollars, he said; doing so in greater Boston or another urban area would be considerably more expensive. The city also offers proximity to colleges, including Keene State and Dartmouth, which produce scientific talent, he noted.
“We think Keene is a place that could be affordable and yet can have access to resources where these companies could benefit,” he said.
Gene Garcia, who has a doctorate in biological sciences and works as quality manager at W.S. Badger Co. Inc. in Gilsum, said it’s difficult for scientists to find work at biotech companies outside major metropolitan areas. That means local college students who study science often must leave the Monadnock Region to find work.
“The biotech and high-tech jobs aren’t here, so they have to go out of the area,” said Garcia, who is also part of the team discussing the biotech incubator.
The team is still looking for potential projects the incubator could take on, if it opens, he said. The program would seek to support businesses that create products and technologies related to health care and agriculture — two areas that are complimentary to the region’s strengths and resources, according to Wallen.
The biotech ventures might develop biotechnological methods for testing food safety, or diagnostic tools for animal or human diseases, according to Kristiansen.
Aside from using private capital, biotech companies receive much of their funding through federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and venture capitalists.
Kristiansen said the Hannah Grimes Center would take in only biotech companies that already have some funding of their own.
But, she said, for the biotech incubator to open, the center would need some “lucky breaks” in terms of funding. It would also need to forge more connections within the biotech world.
The center would look for companies interested in contracting out lab space or services from the center’s incubator facility to help keep down the cost of maintaining it, according to Kristiansen. It would also consider applying for grant funding to outfit and run the lab.
Even if the Hannah Grimes Center doesn’t start the biotech incubator, Kristiansen said, she and the team she’s been working with would want to help start a biotech sector in the region using other means.
That could include encouraging a private company to start an incubator, or using resources through Keene State College or somewhere else in the community, she said.
“It could take any number of forms,” she said.