An imperfect science: Supporting and incubating Oregon’s bioscience industry from scratch

By Mitch Daugherty, Built Oregon

The bioscience industry in Oregon is one that sometimes flies under the radar, but it’s one where the impact—specifically from an economic standpoint—cannot be ignored. One of the unique pieces within the industry vertical is the Oregon Translational and Development Institute (OTRADI).

Since 2007 this organization has focused on translating research to commercialization, and in 2013 they launched the state’s only bioscience incubator.

We recently sat down with Jennifer Fox, the Executive Director of OTRADI, to learn a bit more about their story.

What is OTRADI’s core mission?

OTRADI is a nonprofit institute primarily funded by the State of Oregon to fuel the economic development of Oregon’s bioscience industry by translating innovative research into products and companies that benefit human health and create high-wage jobs for Oregon.

Since its inception, OTRADI has evolved quite a bit. How has that evolution enabled the organization to better deliver on its mission?

OTRADI’s overarching goals have always been to translate basic research into commercializable products and to spur startup and spinoff company development in Oregon. To achieve our core goals, we have used the State’s funding that we’ve received since 2007 to build out two completely unique assets:

  • Since 2007, OTRADI has operated Oregon’s only drug discovery core laboratory, located in Portland, OR. OTRADI Lab is the only resource in the state with high-throughput screening robotics, compound libraries and scientists with expertise in collaborating with university researchers to design, validate and troubleshoot experiments to discover, validate and de-risk new drugs. In 2015, OTRADI opened an additional lab location in Corvallis, on the campus of Oregon State University.
  • In 2013, OTRADI built out and opened Oregon’s only bioscience-focused startup business incubator—the OTRADI Bioscience Incubator (OBI). The OBI provides shared laboratory equipment, lab and office suites and a statewide BioMentoring network for spin-off and startup companies in Oregon. Half of the OBI’s current client companies have worked with OTRADI Labs on scientific projects.

Basically, OTRADI provides a continuum or pipeline from basic university research to value-added scientific work at OTRADI Labs, then to commercialization with startup company formation via the OTRADI Bioscience Incubator, and then to successful company growth and job creation for Oregon.

Can you talk about how the idea around a bioscience incubator came to be? Were there other models out there that you looked to mimic?

In working with university researchers since 2007 at OTRADI Labs, we were honored to be helpful in developing multiple technologies that led to startup companies. Over the years, OTRADI has increasingly used our resources to help new companies incorporate, navigate writing their first SBIR grant and introduce fledgling entrepreneurs to partners and mentors. Our startup and spinoff companies continually faced the same roadblock to growth—no available wet lab or incubation space. The Portland State Business Accelerator’s (PSBA) collection of small labs had been full with a waiting list for years, and no other lab space was planned in the area. Finally, OTRADI decided that we would eliminate this lack of wet lab space roadblock ourselves by opening the OTRADI Bioscience Incubator.

Locally, we worked closely with the successful PSBA to learn best practices, to listen to local demands and to ensure that we were working synergistically with the PSBA to deliver incubation resources to startups in Portland. As an aspirational role model, we’ve looked to QB3, a research institute and accelerator headquartered at the Mission Bay campus of the University of California, San Francisco. QB3 is a series of incubators, and more specifically we’ve looked to QB3@953 as a good starting point for bioscience incubation. For more details, see

Incubator and Accelerators are terms used around a lot of things these days. How does a bioscience incubator differ from other industry verticals? How is it similar?

Generally speaking, accelerators are programs that exchange investment and/or mentorship for an equity stake in a startup company. Accelerators often offer specific-length programs that companies go through in order to graduate. Incubators are longer-term programs that often offer a combination of specialized space, mentoring, and training.

OTRADI Bioscience Incubator (OBI) offers space, equipment and mentoring and does not have an equity stake in startup companies that we incubate. The OBI specifically serves the niche needs of bio-entrepreneurs and early-stage startups, by providing specialized shared scientific equipment and lab space. We serve a subsection (early stage/startups) of the vertical community that the Oregon Bioscience Association serves. We augment and serve a small section (early stage/startups in bioscience) that uses other horizontal resources, such as the PSBA, which is a tech incubator that helps startups in software, clean tech, biotech, etc. and the Oregon Entrepreneur Network, which helps a wide variety of entrepreneurs from all traded sectors at early stages of growth.

Many people are not aware of the process around commercializing and developing bioscience products, can you talk about some of the biggest challenges facing founders in these fields?

Founders seeking to commercialize and develop bioscience products face all of the common challenges of any product developer or startup founder, including challenges of accessing sufficient capital, allocating constrained resources, designing effective collaborations and partnerships, making difficult and complex go/no-go decisions, honestly assessing risks and effectively guarding assets. In addition, bio-founders must concurrently become experts at negotiating technology licenses, often from or with universities or research institutes. Other unique challenges include the vast amount of capital and years needed to advance bioscience products through the R&D phase, into and though FDA trials and into the health care market. Even once products are approved, the question of health care reimbursement or “who will pay?” come into play. Timeline and capital needed are extreme constraints for bio-founders compared to software founders, for instance.

What are some of the biggest opportunities you see on the horizon for both OTRADI and Oregon’s overall bioscience community?

In 2015, OHSU and the greater Oregon bioscience community will see the unprecedented opportunity of $1 billion of funding to drive scientific research to cure cancer. OTRADI Lab is poised to partner on cancer and other drug discovery activities and avail ourselves of joint opportunities to grow. OTRADI already works with many researchers at OHSU’s Knight Cancer Center by providing scientific/experimental services and partnering with researchers and spin-off companies to write grants for federal funding. With an additional $1 billion of funding and forty or more new world-class researchers attracted to OHSU, OTRADI Lab’s opportunity to grow and prosper through increased scientific and grant-related revenue are likely.

In addition, the OTRADI Bioscience Incubator (OBI) has been the go-to incubator for OHSU spinoff companies, with over half of OBI’s current client companies coming from OHSU. As OHSU’s de facto incubator, the OBI expects to see an increased demand in spinoff company formation requiring lab and incubation space in coming years. OTRADI and OBI must prepare for these needs and be in growth mode to help propel both research and startup incubation activities, and co-benefit from additional resources and attention for Oregon.

What is the role—both from a collaboration and acceleration perspective—that OTRADI fills in the world of bioscience/academia/private?

  1. OTRADI Labs provides the state’s only drug discovery core laboratories. The robotics and expertise that are held by OTRADI Labs are available to university researchers and startup companies in Oregon. OTRADI Labs helps these academia and private companies to develop novel experiments and “translate” basic research into promising new products.
  2. OTRADI helps fledgling entrepreneurs across Oregon with our OBI BioMentoring network, which connects bio-entrepreneurs (both those located within the OBI and any entrepreneurs from across the state) that need help/advice with nearly 100 industry professionals who provide voluntary, pro bono advice and recommendations in areas of concern to bioscience entrepreneurs, including: business formation and planning, capital sources (SBIR, STTR, DOD, angel/VC), communications, intellectual property and patents, technology licensing, strategic partnerships, product development and management, clinical trials, FDA regulatory strategies, commercialization, market evaluation, marketing, finance, manufacturing, facilities, organizational leadership, human resources management, and a range of other relevant areas. Our full roster of BioMentors, can be found on our website at as a resource for entrepreneurs statewide.
  3. OTRADI Bioscience Incubator is Oregon’s only bioscience-focused startup business incubator. The OBI provides a home for startup companies, including shared laboratory equipment, lab and office suites and our BioMentoring. We are on-site and committed to the success of these private companies, as well as promoting the bioscience sector in Oregon.

What has been the biggest surprise since you took over as ED of OTRADI?

This will sound naïve, but I had no idea how much work was required to run a business. I didn’t know I could work as hard or as passionately as I have in my role as Executive Director of OTRADI. I thought I’d worked hard in my life—being a caddy, waitressing, earning my Ph.D., struggling through two challenging postdocs, writing grants and running the OTRADI Lab for years—but the workload and determination required for each of those positions pale in comparison to being the ED of OTRADI. It is simultaneously the most rewarding and infuriating and important and impossible job I’ve ever undertaken.

That said, I love it.


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