Biotech Startup Relocates To Connecticut

Apr 30, 2012

Governor Dannel Malloy has taken a bet that Connecticut can become a hub for the next generation of biotechnology companies. He’s hoping his pricey gamble to bring Jackson Labs to the state will kickstart a whole industry. WNPR’s Harriet Jones went to visit with one company that shows how that could work.

“Essentially we have half the lab and we’re kind of moving in this direction….”

This only halfway-stocked laboratory is in the technology incubator adjacent to the UConn Health Center in Farmington. A new biotech company is taking shape.

“Basically what we do at Synbody Biotechnology is we’re creating specialized types of molecules that can replace antibodies. And so the name was coined to mean essentially, synthetic antibodies.”

That’s Paul Hallenbeck, the President and CEO of Synbody Biotechnology. His three-person company is racing to develop this technology as a potential new way to combat cancers, antibiotic resistant pneumonia and deadly hospital acquired infections. Hallenbeck says this type of synthetic agent is a new paradigm in drug development, fundamentally different from the so-called small molecule drugs – the type your doctor might prescribe now.

“So all of the new proteins that are being discovered by the major genomics efforts, the human sequencing project, all those new proteins that are being discovered are essentially undruggable because they’re inside of cells. Small molecules really can’t block the ability of those proteins to interact with other proteins.”

By contrast, synbodies can enter cells, and Hallenbeck says their experiments are proving they can be effective and highly specific. When Hallenbeck formed this new startup, he was living in Philadelphia, as was his research and development director Kevin Burroughs

“We actually spent a fair amount of time essentially shopping Synbody Biotechnology around trying to finance the company. And we found that the state of Connecticut, and I think this is very public now, that they’ve put quite a large emphasis on biotech and personalized medicine here.”

Specifically, Synbody Biotechnology was lured here by a $750,000 investment from Connecticut Innovations, which pursued the company aggressively. Hallenbeck and Burroughs moved and began setting up their lab space in early March.

“It’s a wonderful facility here – we really think it suits our needs well and we couldn’t be happier to be here. And we actually looked at a number of different lab spaces in the state of Connecticut before deciding on the health center.”

Hallenbeck agrees – this corner of Connecticut has synergies for his new company.

“So one, is it’s so close to UConn and so for instance we already have collaborations over there with professors involved in cancer, with other professors involved structural biology. Plus they have a great core service that does mass spec, that does surface plasma and resonance binding type studies. As well as the core services in this building. The entire means of a large university.”

Synbody is also pursuing clinical opportunities, including a collaboration with Hartford Hospital on antibiotic resistant diseases. Another thing they’ve found is a readymade workforce.

“This is a laminar flow hood, that once the air starts flowing here, prevents non-sterile air from getting inside the container. So that whatever is in here I know is sterile.”

Jeff Dubins is the company’s first hire since coming to Connecticut. He left Pfizer’s Groton facility last summer after 21 years at the pharma giant, and this is his first experience of the small biotech world.

“I’m one of three, so I really feel part of this company where if I’m successful, this company’s going to be successful. Whereas in a large company there’s no direct correlation between what I’m doing and the success of the company.”

One last thing, says Paul Hallenbeck, made Connecticut make sense:

“And Jackson Labs coming in here – that’s key, that’s very, very important.”

It’s important, he says, because of the ecosystem it might create.

“That’s kind of the Cambridge model, so to speak with large pharmaceutical companies and other types of small biotech companies – is you have critical mass of people kind of focused in on a given area. So you have a lot of talent and also you have the types of interactions and business development deals you can create.”

And in creating that critical mass, Governor Malloy and his economic development team will be hoping that Synbody is just the start.

For WNPR, I'm Harriet Jones.