Athersys Inc. is a biotechnology company that develops therapeutics for the treatment of human disease. Athersys has created two proprietary platform technologies: the SMC (synthetic microchromosome) vector system and RAGE™ (random activation of gene expression). The SMC vector system is the first completely artificial human chromosome for applications in gene therapy, transgenetics and functional genomics. RAGE activates and expresses proteins from virtually any gene, without requiring prior knowledge of the gene sequence or the use of complex conventional recombinant DNA techniques. According to Red Herring magazine, some scientists believe this technology "has the potential to reshape drug discovery and perhaps the pharmaceutical industry."
Athersys started operations in 1995 with two employees in 180 square feet of the Edison Technology Incubator (ETI), which is managed by Enterprise Development Inc. (EDI). "We needed to get access to specialized facilities and needed a facility that would allow us to grow over time," says Athersys President and CEO Gil Van Bokkelen. "The incubator facility was ideal for our early-stage growth and development ... and the staff made the experience a real pleasure for all of us." Van Bokkelen and other Athersys employees regularly participated in incubator programs, including the Enterprise Scholars Program, an internship program that pairs MBA students with entrepreneurial companies in the Cleveland area. The company availed itself of many incubator services, including assistance with public relations. Athersys’ marketability and the marketing expertise of the ETI staff made for a potent pairing, according Ellen Blahut, former ETI director and now an Athersys employee. "The incubator did a lot of public relations [for clients], and Athersys really stood out as a shining star," Blahut says. "The media recognized that, and [Athersys] began to receive more coverage."
By 1998, Athersys had graduated from ETI to 5,200 square feet in BioEnterprise, another EDI incubator. There, the company grew to occupy more than 13,000 square feet, ultimately graduating to its own 33,000-square-foot facility in April 2000. Athersys has continued to grow, and is expanding to 70,000 square feet to accommodate its workforce of almost 100 employees. "It was wonderful to see them grow from a small facility to a more sophisticated location in BioEnterprise, to now, with a super sophisticated facility," Blahut says.
In fact, according to Van Bokkelen, the flexibility and amenities at both incubators were invaluable to the fledgling life science company. "There were a variety of services that were helpful, but simply providing access to facilities that were appropriate for conducting early-stage biotechnology product development [was] most critical," says Van Bokkelen. "Unlike most industries, biotechnology companies require very specialized facilities, (e.g., air handling systems, electrical capacity, security systems) and when you are starting small but require room for growth, you don’t want to commit to an enormous facility that you will eventually grow into. The BioEnterprise incubator gave us a place to start, as well as room to grow."
Athersys attributes its success to the incubator’s help and the company’s ability to meet its goals. "We have established a track record over the last several years of establishing a specific game plan, and then consistently executing according to the plan," says Van Bokkelen. "That gives investors confidence, and creates an aura about the company that people are attracted to." Indeed, Athersys raised $2.5 million early in its operation, raising an additional $10.1 million in 1998 and $47.5 million in 2000 — nearly twice the expected amount.
Athersys has won numerous awards, including the 1997 State of Ohio Thomas Edison Award — Outstanding Technical Achievement. In 2001, Athersys Executive Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer John Harrington received the NORTECH Technology Innovation Award for the invention of the RAGE technology. "The prestige and recognition they have brought to our incubator is invaluable to us," says Wayne Zeman, executive director of the Lewis Incubator for Technology, a third incubator EDI operates. "It really demonstrates that this is a high quality incubator program with high-quality companies coming out of it."
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