Empty, pre-fitted lab spaces
Empty, pre-fitted lab spaces. Image courtesy N.C. Research Campus

For scientific companies trying to get a start, but without a lot of money, having a lab at their disposal can make the difference between failing or flying.

By Stephanie Soucheray

Wenhong Cao has been studying diabetes and insulin resistance for 20 years, but last year the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill professor decided he wanted to take a broader approach to solving the disease. After years of doing research for industries, Cao decided he wanted to be a business owner and create products that could stop diabetes in its tracks.

Cao started a company, J.C. MED, to create at-home diagnostics for insulin resistance, the metabolic precursor to diabetes. J.C. MED also develops supplements for combating insulin resistance.

Wenhong Cao
Wenhong Cao. Image courtesy Nutrition Research Institute, UNC-Chapel Hill
“It takes an average of 15 years for someone to go from insulin resistance to diabetes,” said Cao. “And if we can detect the presence of insulin resistance and reverse it, then diabetes is reversible.”

“We’re working at a good pace,” said Cao. “We’re ready to send out our first batch in a couple months.”

And that batch will be created in Cao’s state-of-the-art lab, one of three that opened at the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis this fall. As part of an expansion, the NCRC opened three ready-to-go labs that provide 1,700 square feet of wet lab space for start-ups, like J.C. MED, and big companies like General Mills, who will be conducting nutrition research. Carolinas Healthcare System will be occupying the third lab.

“The ready-to-go labs are something we’ve contemplated for three years,” said Clyde Higgs, vice president for business development at NCRC. “We finally tested the market and wanted to see if something was viable.”

The labs are more than viable: Higgs said he leased all three units before the facilities were open, and there are plans to build three additional ones next year.

A perfect opportunity

Everyone knows scientists work in laboratories. But if you’re not affiliated with a large university or company, laboratories are expensive places to conduct business. Unlike a typical office suite, labs have to come with chemical hoods, sinks, burners and access to million-dollar equipment.

Empty, pre-fitted lab spaces
Empty, pre-fitted lab spaces. Image courtesy N.C. Research Campus
“One piece of equipment can easily be seven figures,” said Higgs. “That’s what makes this such a cool facility. There’s probably not another area [in North Carolina] where companies have access to core lab equipment on site, or are able to access equipment inside the building on an as- needed basis.”

Lynne Safrit, the president and COO of Castle and Cooke, which develops the NCRC, said occupants of the ready-to-go labs can also access a wide spectrum of scientific expertise from the eight universities represented on the NCRC.

On a more practical level, ready-to-go labs are a safer bet for start-up businesses that have no idea how much they will grow (or not) when they rent initial lab space.

“It offers a perfect opportunity for start-up companies to leverage their funding in a very economic way by leasing a small module to test their proof of concept and to solidify their early-stage research,” said Safrit.

Higgs said the lab spaces are the only ones of their kind in Western North Carolina.

Schematic of a ready-to-go laboratory.
Schematic of a ready-to-go laboratory. Image courtesy N.C. Research Campus
“In our region, our labs are the only place to get ready-to-go spec lab space and move into flexible leases,” he said. “A company can grow and contract the lab as needed. They aren’t locked in.”

From N.C. to China

Cao said he’s hoping J.C. MED will grow rapidly after its initial year – which will happen if the company succeeds in its test market: China. He’ll get help from Chinese partner Shanghai I DO Biotechnololgy.

“Diabetes is a huge problem in China,” said Cao. He said that while American rates of the disease have leveled off at 8 percent over the last decade, 11 percent of Chinese people have diabetes.

“And what’s amazing is, 50 percent of Chinese have pre-diabetes,” said Cao.

He said the ready-to-go lab space has been a good place to develop his supplements.

“I’ve worked on the NCRC in nutrition before, so the labs are very convenient,” said Cao. “And the new lab is much better than most labs in universities.”

Higgs said the labs were funded by Castle and Cooke, the development company behind the NCRC, and David Murdock, the founder of the institute. The labs were filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

“As long as a company is willing to use our labs for human health, nutrition or one of our other focuses, they can lease our space,” said Higgs.

Correction: this article originally referred to Dr. Cao’s company as J.C. Medical. It is actually J.C. MED.

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