Signals Blog

This is part three of an interview series with Michael West, CEO of BioTime. Read parts one and two

The prospects for BioTime and other companies that operate in the tissue engineering and cell therapy market are good. The industry is growing by about 18% per year and is estimated to reach $11 billion in 2020.

That said, it hasn’t always been uphill for an industry that’s been dependent on stem cell research to lay foundations for its products.

Over the past 15 years, there’s been a perceived influence of political moods on stem cell research, particularly in the United States. Media stories have ebbed and flowed, sometimes leading people to think that political decisions will stymie, if not kill, stem cell research if given the opportunity. The state of stem cell research in the U.S. has long been a hot topic in but was set aside during the 2012 U.S Presidential election as the general public had more pressing concerns on their minds: paying their mortgages and obtaining jobs.

When I spoke with West, he didn’t think that political decisions has such a large influence on the regenerative medicine industry, explaining that there’s a considerable breadth of cell culture products already available on the market. In a sense, stem cell companies have evolved to a point where political risks are much smaller than in the past

In addition to West’s point, Nick Dragojlovic predicts that the issue of funding hESC research in the United States is will stay on the backburner until at least 2017.

Yet while a growing market is helpful, I asked West about how BioTime was now positioned after absorbing Geron’s stem cell program.

He admitted that the problems that led Geron to abandon its stem cell program were partly related to processes relating to cell production. “Geron might have kept the stem cell program going if purity of cells was there,” suggested West. Developing methods to grow pure cells is an area that Geron chose not to pursue, likely due to the expertise within the company at the time, which seemed to be predominantly oncology, not stem cell biology.

West explained that the deal with Geron provided BioTime with an arsenal of patents under its belt, adding that “it’s the strength of the IP portfolio that makes BioTime unique.” Building up BioTime’s patent assets has been a strategy intentionally designed to avoid patent thickets in an industry inundated with them.

The result is that project teams within BioTime have become much more nimble in the process. West put the goal of this strategy succinctly, “The IP portfolio of BioTime gives us the ability to give each of [our] subsidiaries freedom to operate.” Without legal hangups relating to licencing, it seems that BioTime is positioned to deliver on new technologies faster than a lot of competitors.

In closing our conversation, West left me with the impression that industrial companies were excellent places to work. The novelty of research being performed, the fast pace of work, and the ability to make an real-world impact seem like strong selling points for anyone in the early stages of their career, said West, adding that, “In most places, if the person works and applies themselves, there’s no limit to what the company will do for you.”

Definitely great features to consider for anyone just coming out of academic training.

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Paul Krzyzanowski

Paul is a computational biologist and writer living in Toronto. He's been a contributor to Signals for three years, writing articles for the general public about how biotechnology and biomedical research can be used to solve pressing medical problems. Alongside Paul's experience in computational biology,
 bioinformatics, and molecular genetics, he's interested in how academic research develops into real world, commercial technology, and what's needed for the Canadian biotech industry needs to grow. Paul is currently a Post-doctoral Fellow at the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research. Prior to joining the OICR, he worked at the Ottawa Hospital Research 
Institute and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Ottawa, specializing in computational biology. And finally, Paul earned an H.B.Sc. from the University of Toronto a long time ago. Paul's blog can be read at