The Ammon Pinizzottoo Center: Working Across Disciplines for Biopharma Innovation
Like its neighbor on the University of Delaware’s STAR Campus, the FinTech Innovation Hub across the quad to the west, the six-stories-high Ammon Pinizzotto Biopharmaceutical Innovation Center is dedicated to a single research topic but nevertheless contains a diverse group of researchers and academics. Unlike buildings on traditional campuses that usually house a single college, the STAR Campus units cut across academic disciplines in order to encourage intellectual interaction among their tenants.
Opened in October 2021, the 228,000-square-foot facility, known locally as “A.P. Bio,” houses the labs and offices of nearly 300 researchers who are mostly attached to three organizations: NIIMBL (The National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals), the Delaware Biotechnology Institute and UD’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. Additionally, it also houses the Immerse Delaware unit of Waters, a leading manufacturer of laboratory equipment.
Constructed at a cost of $165 million, the Biopharmaceutical Innovation Center is named after former Endo Pharmaceuticals CEO Carol A. Ammon and obstetrician/ gynecologist Marie E. Pinizzotto, who together donated $25 million in initial funding.
The National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals, headquartered at STAR Campus, is a public-private partnership whose mission is to accelerate biopharmaceutical innovation, the development of rapid manufacturing capabilities and the advancement of U.S. competitiveness in the field.
“We tend to invent things here in the U.S., and then export that knowledge,” which other countries commercialize, says Kelvin Lee, NIIMBL director. “What we are working on is developing platforms that are agnostic to whatever disease you are trying to treat, so we operate on platforms that have a wide variety of possibilities.”
“NIIMBL is now in Year 8,” Lee continues, “and it has grown to 200 members from large global companies to startups to providers, universities, community colleges and economic development agencies.”
Lee cites a number of ongoing programs. “One new important platform is a new technology for manufacturing buffers,” he says. “Producing liquid buffers for therapies using antibodies is labor intensive and can be threatened by supply-chain constraints. Now we’re getting companies to work together to allow buffers to be produced on demand.”
Another platform under development seeks to develop a capability other industries utilize, but pharmaceuticals surprisingly does not. “We need to move from an ecosystem of batch manufacturing drugs to continuous manufacturing of them,” he says. “Food companies do it, automobile companies do it. Continuous manufacturing is more efficient and uses less resources, with no need to ramp up and ramp down. A problem has been a discomfort of any one company asking for government approval. At NIIMBL, we are working together to prove it can work, then to develop standards.”
NIIMBL also has an education component — the eXperience project, which recruits freshmen and sophomores, mainly from historically Black universities and colleges, to introduce them to the life of an employee in pharmaceuticals production. The two-week summer program takes them to large and small pharma companies and government labs. “We are trying to scale up across the nation,” Lee says. “We now have 10 to 15 students, but we expect to expand that by three times.”
Delaware Biotechnology Institute
Jung-Youn Lee, professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Delaware, is new to her job as interim director of DBI, but she is no stranger to the organization. “I was one of the first people hired” when the institute was founded in 1991, she said in early March, shortly after she moved into her new position.
“We wanted to see what would happen if we mixed together people from different backgrounds — chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, biotechnology — in the same space,” Lee says. “It was spontaneous fuel for innovation. Through the years, many unexpected initiatives and accomplishments have occurred as we meet in the hallways, the kitchen, everywhere. In doing so, we have built a world-class faculty.”
Since its formation, DBI has been a magnet for life science research and development, supporting multidisciplinary research at UD, Delaware State University, ChristianaCare, Nemours Children’s Hospital and Delaware Technical Community College.
There is also an important physical as well as academic component that DBI offers researchers: the latest and often most expensive laboratory equipment. “Anyone can use the instruments, from faculty to outsiders,” Lee says. “Individual departments could not have easily acquired these expensive instruments. Additionally, we have in-house the required expertise to keep them operating. Hundreds have used the lab over the years, especially the DNA lab.”
DBI encourages research partnerships between academia and industry by providing seed funding opportunities through its popular Bioscience CAT program. “We’re getting ready for another round of calls for projects, and we have previously made a significant number of awards involving startups to larger companies,” Lee says. “But although we do matchmaking and facilitate seed funding, we don’t get involved in intellectual property issues.”
The institute also has community outreach programs such as the BioGENEius Challenge, Sussex Science Night and Science for All Delawareans.
And already in her short tenure as interim director, Lee has created a new competition — one that encourages entrepreneurs to come forth with what Lee seriously terms their “crazy ideas” to be vetted in a Shark Tank setting. The competition’s first round was planned for April 2023, with other details still being finalized at the time of writing. It will be called “iHIT,” which stands for “ideas, High-return, Innovative, Transformative.”
“Who knows,” Lee says. “Perhaps we will find the next Elon Musk.”
Delaware Immerse Delaware is an innovation and research lab under the umbrella of Waters, a leading manufacturer of laboratory equipment. It was founded at Ammon Pinizzotto in early 2022 to, as Waters CEO and UD graduate Udit Batra explained at its opening, “tap into an ecosystem of talent and expertise in biological manufacturing, coupled with Waters’ experience in analytical technologies, to advance and accelerate the delivery of high-quality medicines to patients.”
“Waters has been involved for decades in life sciences, and the Immerse franchise originated four and a half years ago with Immerse Cambridge,” according to Waters’ VP for Global Research, Steve Martin. “Immerse Delaware focuses on a grand challenge in an area where we don’t have inside capabilities — chemical engineering.”
Colette Quinn, director of strategic marketing at Waters and recently named to oversee Immerse Delaware, says, “Being on the STAR Campus was very important to us, as the building was framed as a bioprocessing center with good lab space available. Right now, we are first immersing our own staff into the situation. The Immerse project also gives our staff elsewhere the opportunity to do sabbaticals here. We are looking to insert ourselves within a project that is already underway.”
Waters sees the venture as a great opportunity for UD faculty and their graduate students to work on research projects selected after rounds of calls for proposals. As part of the company’s agreement with UD, Quinn says, “By having our business contracts with the university rather than with individual professors, we can go into any college for research proposals. We have the potential to work with any professor, no matter where they are located — and we see that as being very exciting.”