Early-stage biotech startups find common ground at Forward BIOLABS

At Forward BIOLABS in University Research Park, a nonprofit coworking life sciences lab founded in September 2018, members can rent space by the 6-foot bench.
Person workin in the lab
Photo by Romulo Ueda
Jennifer Swanson, a lab technician at Endsulin

Imagine the sort of coworking space we’ve all grown used to, but this time it’s for scientists. It’s a place for cash-strapped research teams that have taken the leap and launched small biotech startups with big implications. Maybe they’re working on health innovations, like cancer-targeting immunotherapies or potentially lifesaving medical devices. Maybe they want to create smarter pesticides, or grow “seafood” from cell cultures — but they can’t afford to set up a lab.

At Forward BIOLABS in University Research Park, a nonprofit coworking life sciences lab founded in September 2018, members can rent space by the 6-foot bench. Then they share lab equipment that’s cost-prohibitive but so critical that many companies wouldn’t be able to start without it, in some cases saving as much as $500,000 in startup costs and six to 12 months of work. They also get access to office space, cubicles, desks, personal protective equipment, lab coats, conference rooms and a kitchen. Places like this exist on the coasts in the major tech hubs, but they’re a rarity in this region.

“People have been talking about this for 20 years, trying to get something like this going for so long,” says CEO Jessica Martin Eckerly, who co-founded Forward BIOLABS with WiCell Research Institute CEO Robert Drape. They started with a $750,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and support from founding partners the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, University Research Park, Madison Gas and Electric and Promega Corp. Forward BIOLABS has since hosted 26 startups on a month-to-month membership; nine have “graduated” and 17 remain. The goal is to keep startups in Wisconsin — including 13 University of Wisconsin–Madison spinouts so far.

“The solutions are not just created in San Francisco and Boston, they’re created by researchers right here in our state,” says Eckerly, whose extended family has farmed for generations in a part of rural Wisconsin where jobs are disappearing. She loves helping start companies that not only potentially help people but also create local jobs. According to BioForward Wisconsin’s 2020 report, biohealth organizations directly employ more than 46,000 Wisconsinites. In three short years, Forward BIOLABS has percolated a dizzying volume of progress and potential in a realm where advancements can take years to reach consumers. Researchers may labor their entire careers without knowing when, if ever, their work will help people. But at Forward BIOLABS, it feels possible — which is especially poignant considering some of these researchers may not have taken the first step without this lab space.

It’s enough to make Eckerly emotional.

“The problems that these companies are solving, you can’t solve without a lab,” says Eckerly, who also coaches Girls on the Run. When one of the girls on her team was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, it was painful for Eckerly to watch her struggle to adjust. “But then I come to work the next day and there’s a company that’s working really hard and moving very quickly and successfully on gene therapy for Type 1 diabetes, and so I can go back to her and say, ‘They’re working on it. Keep muddling through, because there are solutions on the way.’  ”

Taking a Look Inside Forward BIOLABS

The One That Started it All
When WiCell neuroscientist Su-Chun Zhang launched his own company, BrainXell, in 2015, he approached Drape about borrowing space and equipment. That spurred the model that became Forward BIOLABS, with BrainXell being the first member. BrainXell has since moved down the road to its own facility, where it distributes stem cell-derived neurons all over the world to potentially treat neurological injuries and diseases.

Tenant Spotlights

  • AyrFlo Inc. is developing a noninvasive medical device that alerts health care workers when a patient’s airway becomes constricted.
  • Cellular Logistics is developing cardiovascular cell therapies to help patients with heart failure.
  • Endsulin, founded by UW Health’s Dr. Hans Sollinger, is reengineering genes from the liver to produce and regulate insulin for Type I diabetes.

More Members

  • Circular Innovations
  • Complete Phytochemical Solutions
  • Cultured Decadence
  • Dianomi Therapeutics
  • Edan
  • Flambeau RapidX
  • Gregor Diagnostics
  • Immuto Scientific
  • Jace Biomedical Inc.
  • Nano RED Biotechnology
  • NanoSUR
  • Obvia Pharmaceuticals
  • OvaInnovations
  • Polymer Forge Inc.

Maggie Ginsberg is an associate editor of Madison Magazine.