Economic development group looks to grow life science sector in Charleston

The Charleston Regional Development Alliance knows it wants to see the Lowcountry to grow a life sciences sector. Now it's trying to figure out just how to do that.

The agency hired a consultant in July to draw up a plan to develop the industry locally. Kathy Phlegar, who runs a consulting firm in Mount Pleasant, has until December to recommend what corners of the sector the region should go after and what companies economic development officials should look to lure here. The contract cost $54,600, spokeswoman Claire Gibbons said.

The region has a foothold in the world of developing medicines, medical devices and technology aimed at health care providers: The Medical University of South Carolina is spinning off more startups, the S.C. Research Authority has a big presence in Summerville and new initiatives like the Harbor Entrepreneur Center's PriMed accelerator are cropping up to support young companies in the industry.

But the Lowcountry also faces lots of competition, even in the Southeast: Cities like Raleigh and Nashville have well-established industries, bolstered by big research concentrations. Charleston is hardly the first place to eye the industry's high pay and insulation from economic downturns.

Phlegar says she thinks groups like the CRDA should use traditional recruitment tools like incentives to bring more life science companies into the area. But the broader tech sector, things like tax breaks will only go so far, since the industry leans on startups and new ideas to fuel its growth.

Figuring out how to grow those kinds of businesses is trickier, since they need a network of resources like advisers and investors to get off the ground. Developing an ecosystem like that is a squishier idea, and it's harder to measure.

For one thing, Phlegar says, it would help to get big players like hospitals and research groups talking and to focus their efforts on a few niches like medical devices and health care IT. And playing off the growth of the tech sector would help, too.

"I really think that part of what we've seen over in the IT side, there's just this burgeoning, collaborative environment," Phlegar said. "It creates this energy that is contagious. All of a sudden, you're seeing science entrepreneur groups get together. You're seeing that the success on the tech side is really providing energy over in the life science cluster. There's some overlap."

Connecticut connection

A Connecticut startup with Charleston ties has raised at least $6 million to grow its business of building software for scientists.

Catalytic Data Science said in a securities disclosure this month that it had sold equity worth $6 million to two investors, with plans to sell $4 million more. That's a substantial haul for a company that says it has less than $1 million in annual sales.

Catalytic, which is headquartered in southwest Connecticut, opened an office in Charleston last year to handle its software development work. It wasn't immediately clear whether the new funding would flow into South Carolina, but the company said in its filing that the money would "fund the company's commercialization strategy and to add staff required to support paying enterprise customers."

The startup is working on tools aimed at helping researchers manage their work, but the company has mostly kept a low profile, saying on its one-page website that it's operating in "stealth mode." A message left with the company last week wasn't returned. Click here to read original

 

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