Grant Brewen

A Lifetime In R&D

In early 2012, Grant Brewen, PhD, was named the new president and CEO of Peoria NEXT. He is charged with moving the organization forward under its new strategic plan, which outlines four key areas of activity: NEXT Medical, NEXT Energy, NEXT Food Products/Safety and NEXT Manufacturing. For the last 24 years, Brewen has headed up the Biotechnology Research and Development Corporation (BRDC), one of the original Peoria NEXT anchor organizations. His academic and research experience, and extensive industry and governmental contacts will be invaluable as the organization continues to facilitate commercialization of new technologies for economic development.

Tell us about your background.
I was born October 2, 1939, in Easton, Pennsylvania. I grew up in a suburb of Easton called Wilson Borough and spent my entire childhood in the area. Upon graduation from high school, I attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and earned my BA (1961) and PhD (1963) there. My doctorate was in biology, with an emphasis in genetics and cell biology. After graduation in 1963, I went to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which was operated by Union Carbide Corporation for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy). During my 16 years at Oak Ridge, I was a bench scientist doing research on the mutagenic effects of ionizing radiation and chemicals in mammalian systems, including man, and chromosome structure. In 1979, I left Oak Ridge and took a position at the Allied Chemical Company as director of genetics and biotechnology. In 1988, I was offered the position of president and CEO of the Biotechnology Research and Development Corporation (BRDC).

Tell us about the mission of BRDC and how it got started.
BRDC was incorporated in March of 1988. At the time of its inception, BRDC was unique in that it brought together the private sector, federal and state governments, and academic/research institutions in collaboration. The model was predicated on the idea that a substantial amount of economically valuable technology developed in government and academic laboratories was not being commercialized because it lacked the capital and/or incentive to demonstrate proof of concept. The private-sector partners were expected to bring knowledge of the marketplace and capital to develop promising technologies into commercial uses. It was hoped that some of these commercialization efforts would be located in Peoria and add to the local economy. Subsequent to BRDC’s emergence, many other consortia have been created that are based in part, or whole, on this fundamental model.

What is the nature of the relationship with the Ag Lab (NCAUR) and Peoria NEXT?
BRDC is now located at the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center; we moved this January after being a tenant at the Ag Lab for 24 years. I became president of Peoria NEXT, and it made sense to move our small staff to the same location. The move in no way diminishes the BRDC/NCAUR relationship. We continue to fund research at the lab and support ongoing business ventures that originated, in part, from technology developed there.

Historically, there has always been a strong tie between the two institutions. Initially, BRDC funded projects at only NRRC (the original acronym for the lab) and the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign. Over the years, BRDC expanded its geographic range of research funding until we became truly national in scope, having funded projects as far away as California, upstate New York and Tallahassee, Florida. Currently, we have projects at the University of Tennessee and North Carolina State. But throughout the 24 years, BRDC has always had at least two projects at NCAUR and one at the USDA’s ARS laboratory in Ames, Iowa (National Animal Disease Center).

This loyalty is due, in part, to the fact that NRRC played a key role in the creation of BRDC, but is reflected more in the fact that the lab has always been a source of promising and exciting research. Several business opportunities were spawned at NCAUR, including a decoy-based pesticide control of the apple maggot fly, zuChem’s polyol products and a UV-light absorbing material based on oils that someday will be widely used in cosmetics and skin treatment products.

How is BRDC funded?
Initially, Congress passed an authorization bill for the formation of an R&D consortium and provided $10 million in federal grant funds over five years. At the same time, the State of Illinois pledged $4 million over four years. Six private-sector companies bought into the concept, and they each pledged $200,000 per year as a research fee.

Consequently, BRDC began with the promise of $4.2 million per year for four years. In 1994, two key individuals retired from government service, and the ARS threatened to cease funding BRDC. Then Congressmen Durbin and LaHood stepped forward and put BRDC into the ag appropriations bill as a program earmark. Two years later, Mr. Durbin was elected to the Senate, and BRDC had support in both the House and Senate and “on both sides of the aisle.” In the meantime, some of BRDC’s research projects resulted in licensable technology, which began to provide a steady income stream. Then, in FY2011, earmarks became a thing of the past. At present, BRDC is operating on unspent federal and licensing income funds.

Describe some of BRDC’s most significant projects.
BRDC’s principal goal of discovering and developing biotechnology-derived commercial products had demonstrable success. Some of these commercial successes included:

  • genetic markers in pigs that allowed for the selection of female pigs that bore larger than average litters and a test that predicted susceptibility to certain bacterial infections; 
  • plant gene regulators widely used in genetically-engineered corn;
  • a family of vaccines that will be used in the cattle and poultry industries; and
  • a biological process for making a natural sweetener that will serve as a sugar substitute in diabetic foodstuffs and sugarless gum.

These four examples continue to generate licensing revenue for BRDC, and it is anticipated they will continue to do so until the patents expire. In the case of the vaccines, this revenue stream could continue for an additional 15 to 20 years because patents are continuing to be filed and there are multiple licensees to multiple patents.

Some of the most exciting technologies BRDC was involved in didn’t make it to the marketplace, but came close. Early on, we became involved in a technology based on the Nobel Prize-winning discovery that messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA), commonly known as the vocabulary of genetic information, is self-splicing, in the sense that it cuts out unneeded information. The expression autocatalytic was applied to this process, and BRDC funded research at Northern Illinois University directed to engineering catalytic RNA to target the genetic messages of pathogens and render them incapable of reproducing. This technology was licensed to an Australian pharmaceutical joint venture as a potential HIV therapy. But like so many technologies, the window of opportunity closed before a viable product was developed, and alternative treatments were discovered.

BRDC was also a pioneer in the support of research on embryonic stem cells. Working with a faculty member at UIUC, we filed the first patent on porcine embryonic stem cells and licensed it to a start-up biotechnology firm. The goal was to create immunologically silent pigs whose organs would be transplant-compatible with humans. There were several companies addressing this problem, but the work came to an end when it was discovered that pigs carried a large number of retroviral DNA sequences that posed potentially serious health risks to human recipients.

A third project involved a collaboration with Dow Chemical. Dow scientists had invented a fully biodegradable synthetic polymer with very interesting characteristics, but it was too costly to be used for large-volume “plastic” materials. BRDC enlisted the help of NCAUR starch scientists, who demonstrated the ability to blend the polymer with corn startch, a very cheap commodity. We thought we had attained the holy grail of “biodegradable plastics.” The initial applications would have demanded an annual supply of $10 to $20 million of Dow polymer, a quantity insufficient to warrant Dow’s building a new manufacturing plant. A promising use of a specific form of the material and the involvement of a third party who verbally promised to be a huge customer of the finished product led us to believe we had hit a “home run.” But the customer withdrew their support, and as they say, the rest is history.

Each of these examples provided many years of research excitement. Coupled with the successes, the close calls have provided an exciting 24 years.

How are you balancing dual roles leading both BRDC and Peoria NEXT?
BRDC was one of the original organizations involved in the creation of Peoria NEXT (PN). Consequently, I have been involved in the evolution of PN since its inception. Compared to Richard Lister, Don Rager, Glen Barton, Peter Johnsen and David Brosky, I played a minor role in the conceptualization of PN, but I was able to bring extensive experience in the area of industrial/academic research sponsorship. Through me, BRDC has remained on the PN Board of Directors since its inception. And, I should add, what appear as dual roles, in fact, have many more similarities than differences.

The BRDC organizational model might be the best structure for Peoria NEXT. But instead of only private-sector, for-profit corporations comprising the ownership and management, the governing board could be comprised of for-profits, not-for-profits and organizations that would pay into a fund to be used solely for new venture investments chosen by the board. Details would need to be worked out.

We envision PN playing a role in the economic diversification of the area by supporting the creation and growth of new businesses based on new technologies that flow from creative minds here locally. Also, we are not averse to the importation of startups from around the country if we see a fit.

Recall that as president of BRDC, I was charged with finding new research ideas that would fit with the mid- to long-term strategic plans of its corporate shareholders. In some instances, the technology was intended to address a new niche market and could have resulted in a standalone business. An example was the biodegradable polymer blend that would have been blended regionally to serve the supplier of finished product. In the PN model, these technologies can be built into start-up companies.

What are the biggest challenges for Peoria NEXT moving forward?
PN was born out of the dream of a few individuals to create a recognized biomedical research center in Peoria. An outside consulting firm was hired, and during the course of its analysis, the realization occurred that the region’s technological skillset was much broader in scope than just biomedical. The result was the creation of PN, with the original objective of diversifying the economic foundation of the region and uniting existing technology components into a cohesive entrepreneurial force that would create new businesses.

I was an enthusiastic supporter of the concept because I had employed similar strategies when I directed corporate research. First, identify the objective; next, define the problems to be solved; and then, assemble a diverse team to solve the problems. I often included molecular biologists, inorganic chemists, biochemists, geneticists and instrumentation engineers on the same team and discovered that the geneticist might conceive of an idea to solve an instrumentation problem—the secret being that the individuals were not prejudiced by preconceived dogmas. Often, the ideas were off the wall, but the occasional bullseye made up for the misses.

The issue then becomes if this approach can be applied at the regional level. Can a team comprised of engineers, chemists, physicians, software experts, biologists, etc. be assembled to address a recognized need? A specific example of this is centralized medical records, and my own experience illustrates the problem.

I had an emergency and was admitted to a hospital. I went for the necessary treatment and had to carry my own CAT scan on CD with me. The written records were faxed. After surgery, I had a follow-up in Peoria and the records were again faxed. My primary care physician lost my records at one point when his group upgraded their system. And my case was relatively simple. Imagine complicating it by an order of magnitude, and then multiplying it by hundreds of thousands.

Is there a solution? Yes! Can it be implemented? Yes, but only with the collaboration of payers, providers, physicians and provider staffs. Will it happen? Only if everyone accepts the inevitability of the need and admits the cost savings are too great to be ignored. Vimedicus is a PN startup with an approach that would provide one component of the solution, but they need the cooperation of the entire local medical community to test their ideas. We are working on it, but change does not come easy.

Translate this to an even bigger situation. Every region has its own cultural and economic microenvironment with established practices, attitudes and ambitions. I grew up in a town in the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. The Lehigh Valley was once synonymous with Bethlehem Steel, but the old, sprawling steel plant is now a museum and park; the foundries and mills are gone. My hometown was famous for being the home of Dixie Cup—now closed. Today, the biggest employers are the healthcare industry, local governments and three colleges/universities. There are a significant number of smaller businesses that have located to the area which support a fairly diversified workforce. The area is trying to move into the 21st century, but it is a slow process.

When I was in high school, many of my classmates assumed they would be working at one of the local plants, but those of us who went off to college, for the most part, never came home. There were no career opportunities to return to.

Peoria needs more technological diversification to sustain it going forward. Some of it will be homegrown, but we also need to import some, and both will require capital. It is PN’s first order of business to create the willingness to invest in good ideas that can lead to new business. Without investment, it will be nearly impossible to create new business opportunities. iBi

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