A January 2017 article in Science magazine called industrial biomanufacturing the future of chemical production. Thus, starting a biomanufacturing thrust within the Grainger Institute for Engineering—an incubator for transdisciplinary research in the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering—seems timely indeed.
According to thrust lead William Murphy, Harvey D. Spangler Professor of biomedical engineering and orthopedics, and of materials science and engineering, both time and place may be about as good as it gets.
“UW-Madison is well positioned in several ways to be a leader in biomanufacturing,” Murphy says. “It is one of the very few places in the world that has large industry players, many emerging startup companies, a broad scope of thought leaders on the academic and industry side, and a major medical center and engineering college co-localized and working actively together.”
Dan Thoma, director of the Grainger Institute for Engineering, couldn’t agree more. “Bill has shown tremendous leadership in the rapidly growing area of biomanufacturing, and the institute strives to provide support to assist him in achieving his vision for the new thrust.”
One of the strengths Murphy brings to his new position is extensive experience in partnering with the private sector. Working with the lobbying organization BioForward Wisconsin, he has helped establish biomanufacturing as a state priority, attracting both large and well-established as well as smaller startup companies to the Madison area.
They range from companies focused on regenerative medicine technology, such as Cellular Dynamics International and Opsis Therapeutics, both backed by Fujifilm; to pharmaceutical giants like Mallinckrodt and MilliporeSigma, which includes Merck and Sigma Aldrich; to biomedical tools manufacturer Thermo Fisher Scientific and medical technology and services provider GE Healthcare.
“For the institute’s biomanufacturing thrust, my near-term goals include continuing our engagement with these and other industry partners, pursuing large-scale funding from federal agencies, and advancing biomanufacturing technologies through transdisciplinary collaboration,” Murphy says. “That is consistent with the institute’s overarching goal of bridging multiple traditionally distinct engineering departments.”
Biomanufacturing also aligns well with the institute’s focus on advanced manufacturing, including 3-D printing and additive manufacturing, and accelerated materials discovery, Murphy adds.
Another area he plans to emphasize is entrepreneurship. “Since many opportunities to innovate occur at the interface between the university and the private sector, I would like to make the creation of startup companies more efficient,” Murphy says.
For this, he will draw upon his own experience of starting Tissue Regeneration Systems Inc., a company that develops coated 3-D printed implants for bone regeneration, and Stem Pharm Inc., a company that offers biological materials for cell and tissue manufacturing.
Since spinoff companies often evolve naturally from testing a novel idea at the small scale, Murphy hopes to start a seed grant program for pilot studies, which can then generate preliminary data to help apply for larger sources of external funding.
Murphy anticipates many interactions with Pascale Carayon, Procter & Gamble Bascom Professor in Total Quality in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at UW-Madison. She directs the Grainger Institute for Engineering smart and connected healthcare thrust, which shares a focus on human health with Murphy’s thrust.
Last but not least, Murphy also hopes to contribute to national policies on biomanufacturing. The goal of some of his research is to manufacture human tissue outside the body. This tissue can be used for toxicity testing, overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency, and for drug testing and validation, overseen by the Food and Drug Administration.
“By interacting with the federal agencies that regulate the applications of our research, we hope to help shape the direction of the rapidly growing field of biomanufacturing at the national level,” Murphy says. “This may also include conversations with the country’s largest sponsors of biomedical research, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.”