Women Succeed in Biotech in Alachua County

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It's becoming more and more apparent that Progress Corporate Park is home to many successful biotechnology companies. What might not be apparent is that many of Progress Corporate Park's biotech companies are led by women, which is far ahead of the national curve for the biotech industry. Keep reading to learn about the women behind Alachua County's biotechnology companies! 

By Ronnie Lovler | Business in the Heart of Florida

If you are driving down Highway 441 just a couple miles south of Alachua, you probably won’t give a second glance to the business complex right off the highway, with its unobtrusive signage indicating that this is the home of Progress Corporate Park and the Sid Martin Biotech Incubator.

But tucked inside the nice-looking buildings with the well-manicured lawns are a myriad of biotech companies where scientists and entrepreneurs are involved with projects that are changing lives – not just here in North Florida but across the United States and even around the world.

And many of those working here are women – a fact that sets Alachua County’s biotech industry apart. The numbers are unusual and put our area far ahead of the national curve. According to a 2011 report in the industry trade website, Fierce Biotech, just five percent of the biotech companies in the U.S. are headed by women.

“Women are involved in biotech. I think the word is out. It is growing. Everything is going toward biotech. It’s like engineering was a decade ago,” said LeeAnn Applewhite, CEO of Applied Food Technology, which specializes in seafood identification.

In fact, women are at the helm of three of the nine resident companies at the Sid Martin Biotech Incubator, as well as one company in Progress Park.

LeeAnn Applewhite

Applewhite’s AFT specializes in seafood species identification and verification, a unique DNA identification method based on what the company describes as taxonomically validated reference material.

Applewhite is a scientist who became an entrepreneur and learned to commercialize her research.

She began working in seafood identification in the 1980s in the Aquatic Food Products Lab at the University of Florida. In 1997, she invented the prototype of the seafood test kit that is now the backbone of AFT, using DNA for identification.

But it was serendipity that kicked things off in 2000 when she was at an industry conference and “there was a cry for help to distinguish imported blue crab meat from Atlantic blue crab meat. “

Applewhite made a pitch and “that was our first project. We left with $10,000 in seed money from that meeting to see what we could do. “

Applewhite and her partner, Maureen Dolan, now an associate professor at Arkansas State University, set up AFT in 2003 in Blacksburg, Virginia, moving to the Alachua County incubator in 2010. Today AFT is the go-to place for seafood species identification

When Applewhite opens the freezer in the one-room lab where most of the testing for AFT is done, and pulls out some frozen fish, it may seem as if she is thawing out something to cook for dinner.

But what is stored in that freezer are the samples that companies send to AFT for testing; for example, to make sure the fish that has been identified as tuna really is tuna.

“One frozen fish filet looks pretty much like another,” she said, but with AFT’s DNA testing, a restaurant that is purchasing snapper can be sure they are getting snapper.

“That’s important, not just because of issues of customer satisfaction, but to prevent economic fraud, “ she said.

Right now, AFT is comprised of six people – and four of the six are women, including Applewhite’s daughter, Ashlee.

What’s on the horizon? Perhaps DNA identification of other products, such as produce or wine. Recently, AFT was called when there was a scandal about horse meat being used in Europe for ground beef products. For now, however, seafood remains the mainstay of the business.

Karen Zaderej

Karen Zaderej is CEO and president of AxoGen, Inc., a company that specializes in “bringing the science of nerve repair to life.”  She came to AxoGen as CEO in May 2010, and in September 2011 was named company president.

“We help surgeons repair injured peripheral nerves so patients go back to where they were before … without pain,” she said.

Peripheral nerves control feet, hands, facial expressions and more. In the past, the only way to deal with peripheral nerve damage was to replace the nerve with nerve tissue from elsewhere in a patient’s body. That meant two surgeries, higher costs and an increased risk of infection.

The AxoGen technology gives patients the possibility of repairing damaged nerves with nerve grafts from donor tissue or an allograft.

“We are the only company focused on nerve repair, so we really supply a needed service for health care providers to be able to offer their patients a better quality of life,” she said.

Zederej shared one success story involving a Navy medic on duty in Afghanistan in 2009 whose leg was smashed when he was hit by grenade and rocket fire

Without AxoGen’s nerve graft technology, the vet faced having his leg amputated. Instead, his doctors used the Axogen technology that allowed him to regrow his sciatic nerve.

“Today he is walking around – and it’s on his own leg,” Zederej said.

Zederej says she derives the most personal and professional satisfaction from the patient impact of AxoGen’s products.

“Just knowing we have done something that provides an alternative to those patients that they have never had before… that will dramatically change their quality of life… is what motivates our whole team.

“There are lots of rewards in doing what we are doing, in terms of jobs and shareholder earnings. But the thing that is most motivating is to know how patients are doing and knowing we did something that could not have been done before,” she said.

Professionally, she has spent more time on the marketing and business development side of things than in the laboratory, although she began her career as a scientist with a degree in chemical engineering from Purdue University. She later earned an MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Business.

Today, she is the face and voice of AxoGen and its many success stories.

Kelly Smith

Scientist and entrepreneur Kelly Smith shook up the local biotech world in late 2012, when Syngenta acquired Pasteuria Bioscience, the startup where she played a key scientific role. Syngenta is the world’s largest agri-business firm

Pasteuria was first established in 2003, as part of Entomos, another startup. The goal was to find a way to control the spread of plant-parasitic nematodes. According to Smith, nematodes may be responsible for as much as 12 percent crop loss annually – or billions of dollars in agricultural products.

Nematodes had been controlled in the past with highly toxic methyl bromide, but as the Environmental Protection Agency began phasing out the use of that product, something else was needed.

Smith’s relationship with Pasteuria attests to the power of networking.

She was at a conference more than a decade ago, and heard about the project. She had been working for a paper company in Jacksonville, but soon jumped ship.

“I was a fairly new scientist at that time and I liked the idea of taking on that kind of challenge…of growing a bacterium in the laboratory that only had been observed within a nematode,” she said.

“Nobody had been able to grow it in the laboratory. That was what got me involved in the project and that was my major technological contribution,” she said.

Entomos was the first company to spend time developing the nematicide, but it eventually failed. Venture capitalists who had been involved with funding that project opted to spin off Pasteuria Bioscience, and Smith ended up in Alachua at the incubator.

Smith was chief technical officer at Pasteuria before the acquisition and now serves as head of Pasteuria Bioscience of Syngenta, which has stayed on site at the incubator.

“The fact that the incubator is equipped (not just) for biotechnology, but also has a greenhouse is very rare,” said Smith. “Very few incubators have the foresight to incorporate agricultural biotechnology as part of their business.”

Smith’s expertise is in the sciences. She has a B.S. in chemical engineering from Michigan State University and a Ph.D in Environmental Engineering Science (Applied Microbiology) from the California Institute of Technology. She conducted postdoctoral research at the Smithsonian Institution.

What advice does she have for those who follow?

“It has to start early. The whole push toward biotech education is very important,” she said.  “All the students involved in those programs need to be exposed to entrepreneurs and need to see being an entrepreneur and working in a biotech company is a viable alternative.”

Sue Washer

Sue Washer has been president and CEO of Applied Genetic Technologies Corporation (AGTC) since 2001.

AGTC develops gene therapies and has been particularly focused in recent years on developing treatments for muscular dystrophy, emphysema and degenerative eye conditions.

Washer is an entrepreneur and a scientist, with a degree in biochemistry from Michigan State University and an MBA from the University of Florida, where she was one of the first graduates of the Warrington College of Business Entrepreneurship program.

She also is very involved with community outreach, serving as a member of the executive committee of the boards of UF’s Center for Entrepreneurship, BioFlorida and SEBIO, and a board member of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Gainesville Area Innovation Network and the Florida High Tech Corridor Council.

But even on the job, it appears that she does it all, as she explained in a recent interview with the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce for Women’s History Month in March.

“When you’re an entrepreneur and starting a company…everything needs to be done and if you don’t have a specific person trained in that, you have to get down there and figure it out yourself,” she said

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Virginia MacKoul

Virginia is a graduate from the University of Florida's College of Design Construction and Planning with a degree in Sustainability and the Built Environment, and a minor in Urban Regional Planning. Virginia joined the Front Street team in 2011, as an intern. Upon graduation, Virginia joined the Front Street team full-time as the Director of Client Services. Ms. MacKoul’s addition furthers Front Street’s continued growth and expansion within Gainesville and other North Central Florida markets. She was promoted to Director of Marketing in 2014 and now manages the firm’s team of interns and oversees all marketing and branding activity. Virginia was born in Boston and moved to Lee County, Florida in 1997. Virginia graduated her high school's International Baccalaureate program and started at the University of Florida with a focus on Architecture. Virginia shares Front Street's passion of giving back to the community and those in need. Virginia's hobbies include photography, cooking, football, movies, music, and spending time with her dog, Brinkley.

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