New biotech company forms at University of Montana business incubator

Two dozen good-paying scientific research jobs almost left western Montana for Maryland last year – but they ended up here in Missoula thanks to an innovative partnership with the University of Montana.

GlaxoSmithKline Vaccines, a giant pharmaceutical company with an office in Hamilton, announced in February 2015 that it was consolidating its research and development operations to Maryland.

Employees were faced with the choice of retiring, applying for new jobs on the East Coast, or figuring out a different option. None of them wanted to uproot their families and leave. So, they reached out to UM and chose to stay here, and the result is the formation of a new biotechnology company in Missoula called Inimmune Corp. that currently employs 22 workers in high-wage jobs, with plans to hire three more by year’s end.

The University of Montana played a crucial role in allowing them to stay because it could provide the necessary laboratory space and infrastructure capable of supporting a large multidisciplinary research program.

There was also a big dangling carrot: The scientists from the Bitterroot already had more than $20 million in scientific equipment and research contracts from the National Institutes of Health that they could transfer to UM. It was a win-win situation.

Through the public/private partnership, UM hired 15 employees from the GSK-Hamilton research team, including five new faculty members. The company is now housed at the Montana Technology Enterprise Center on East Broadway, with plans to expand to the main campus next spring. Now, the company is expanding and one of its immuno-oncology drugs is scheduled to go to clinical trials soon.

On Tuesday, officials from Inimmune met with Gov. Steve Bullock and UM President Royce Engstrom for a tour of the facility and a discussion about how the state’s economy is affected by connections between UM researchers and entrepreneurs.

Jay Evans, the president and CEO of Inimmune, said it took a year of discussions and negotiations to put the agreements in place for UM to hire the researchers.

“In association with this transition to the university, we’re also proposing a new Center for Translational Medicine at the University of Montana,” he said. He would direct the center, which would prepare students for careers in the biotech fields. He said many UM faculty members have expressed support for the project. Inimmune also provides opportunities for students looking at careers in biotechnology to gain real-world experience.

Innimune focuses on developing new medicines and treatments – using innate immune receptor activation or inhibition – for conditions like allergies, upper respiratory tract infections, skin diseases and cancer. The company also provides fee-based contract services to academic partners and private pharmaceutical industry companies for drug formulation, analytical chemistry, immunology and chemical synthesis.

Evans didn’t know how much combined payroll that the company doles out every year, but he said “good-paying jobs” were saved from moving to Maryland.

“They have to be good-paying jobs for us to be able to attract and retain the kind of talent we need,” he explained.

Evans also said that the immunotherapy sector is growing and the company is positioned to expand into that space by focusing on diseases with a high unmet medical need.

“Overall, this is the kind of work that we endeavor to do here at the University of Montana,” Engstrom said. “To play a bigger role in the economic development of our community and of our state and to play a bigger role in the kind of research that improves the quality of life for people here in Montana and indeed worldwide.”

Scott Whittenburg, vice president for research and creative scholarship at UM, said the partnership brought a lot of cutting-edge technology to the school and will broaden participation from other researchers on campus.

“Universities have a key role to play in the development of new technology and bringing it to the marketplace,” he said.

Last year, UM secured a record $87 million in external research funding and looks likely to surpass that mark.

Bullock expressed his support for the partnership during a tour with Evans and Engstrom.

“As Montana’s economy grows and diversifies, getting research breakthroughs to market quickly propels new innovations, new businesses and more technical, high-paying jobs for Montana,” he said.

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