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Although it was rolled out roughly five years ago as a collaborative effort among neighbors to transform a Rust Belt city into a hub of biomedical innovation, the Austen BioInnovation Institute is looking beyond its Akron roots in hopes of generating enough revenue to transform the money-losing nonprofit into a sustainable operation.
The move comes as the organization's founding partners and big-time financial backers — the University of Akron, Akron General Health System, Summa Health System, Northeast Ohio Medical University and Akron Children's Hospital — consider whether to continue pumping funds into the fledgling institute as they stare down their own respective monetary challenges. In all, the organizations have contributed $20 million in cash and in-kind support to the institute since its founding in 2008.
"The signal clearly is with their own financial constraints, they might not be able to participate at the same level they participated before," said Dr. Frank Douglas, Austen's president and CEO, during a recent interview with Crain's Cleveland Business.
While the institute was hatched as a collaborative effort among Akron-area institutions to spark commercialization, Austen's latest strategy hinges on its ability to lure university, hospital and industry partners from outside the Akron area who might be interested in tapping the institute's expertise. For instance, the organization in recent months has forged new partnerships with St. Vincent Charity Medical Center in Cleveland and Lorain County Community College.
Dr. Douglas stressed the move to look for partners beyond Akron isn't a sign that Austen's earliest believers have lost faith in the organization, but rather the result of their own economic challenges and the reality of growing the institute into a self-sustaining operation. However, the new strategy is of concern to one of the institute's biggest cheerleaders — Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic.
"I believe the ABIA set very high goals for themselves and while they may not have met every milestone, they have accomplished a great deal in building a foundation for the future," the mayor said in an e-mailed statement. "The only thing that concerns me about other partners is that this community may lose control and ultimately not benefit as much from the initial investment."
Dr. Douglas downplayed the mayor's concerns, noting that while Austen is in the hunt for partners beyond the Akron area, there were no plans to uproot the institute or cede local control. On the contrary, he said a financially sound organization could drive companies or other entities to do business in Akron as they interact with Austen and spur economic activity.
"Very candidly, when you think of innovation, it comes from all over," Dr. Douglas said. "It may not be the best thing to restrict your source of ideas and leads for innovation to one area."
Vince Kazmer, a biosciences entrepreneur who joined Austen as its chief operating officer in February, said the institute retooled its marketing efforts and hired a sales director to help land clients who could employ the organization's services.
Austen, for one, said it can help guide startups through various regulatory hurdles they might face as they move their innovations toward commercialization. Also, Austen, as part of its relatively new $13 million home on North Main Street in downtown Akron, operates an underutilized, 30,000-square-foot simulation center where other organizations, for a fee, could test their devices or train employees.
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