HomeIn PrintThe Future of Biomanufacturing in Oklahoma

The Future of Biomanufacturing in Oklahoma

The Biomanufacturing Workforce Training Camp received $7.2 million through the Build Back Better Regional Challenge and will provide hands-on training in biomanufacturing workforce development. This, along with the rest of the $35 million grant package allocated to the Oklahoma Biotech Innovation Cluster, will help push Oklahoma’s biomanufacturing sector much further. 

As reported previously, the Oklahoma Biotech Innovation Cluster was the recipient of a $35 million grant package as one of 21 winners of the Build Back Better Regional Challenge. The program is funded through ARPA, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which allocated $1 billion in funding for the regional challenge. Of the eight grants submitted, six were funded, one of which is the Biomanufacturing Workforce Training Camp, which received $7.2 million and  falls under the purview of Boren and the Innovation District.

“The BWTC will be inside Innovation Hall,” Boren said. “We’re still finalizing the plans, but as of now, it will be at least 7,500 square feet, and possibly as large as 8,500. We will have several million dollars of state-of-the-art equipment – arguably the newest and best in the country – for hands-on training.”

What started as a series of questions related to biomanufacturing in Oklahoma and a grant for a biomanufacturing workforce training facility quickly turned into a conversation about beer

Yes, beer.

Dr. Elaine Hamm, CEO of Ascend BioVentures, is used to converting scientific concepts into more readily accessible metaphors for those who were just happy to escape a high school lab science class with a passing grade.

“Biomanufacturing takes place in large fermenters,” she said.

Fermenters?

“Yes, just like a brewery,” she said. “Large stainless steel tanks full of very specialized cells – they’re actually Chinese hamster ovarian cells to be specific – and we feed them sugar so they make stuff, so yes, it’s very much like brewing beer, but we’re ‘brewing’ cells that produce antibodies and other biologics.” 

These fermenters – also known as bioreactors – look very much like tanks in a brewery, and so when thinking about what a biomanufacturing facility looks like, just imagine looking at the large tanks behind the glass at local breweries like Stonecloud or Lively while you’re sipping your favorite local brew. The future of biomanufacturing looks much more like a tank room than a gleaming white science lab full of PhDs in smocks, whipping up concoctions in vials and centrifuges. That’s comforting somehow, and more approachable. 

Getting comfortable with the concepts is the most important part, because once the metaphor is in place, the confusion that always emerges when lay people try to grapple with complex scientific concepts becomes more manageable. The importance is hard to overstate, because the future of biomanufacturing in Oklahoma is an opportunity to distinguish the city and state as a national and international hub for this sort of commerce, Hamm said. 

To facilitate that, the state is going to need a large enough workforce with the skills necessary to manufacture to scale, and Oklahoma, like much of the rest of the country, is behind in the area of biomanufacturing workforce development. 

“One of President Biden’s executive orders (ed. Executive Order on America’s Supply Chains, Feb. 24, 2021) prioritized reshoring biomanufacturing,” said Katy Bore, Innovation District president and CEO. “As a country, we don’t have the workforce to take that on yet. I believe about 80% of the products are manufactured outside the U.S.”

As reported previously, the Oklahoma Biotech Innovation Cluster was the recipient of a $35 million grant package as one of 21 winners of the Build Back Better Regional Challenge. The program is funded through ARPA, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which allocated $1 billion in funding for the regional challenge. Of the eight grants submitted, six were funded, one of which is the Biomanufacturing Workforce Training Camp, which received $7.2 million and  falls under the purview of Boren and the Innovation District.

“The BWTC will be inside Innovation Hall,” Boren said. “We’re still finalizing the plans, but as of now, it will be at least 7,500 square feet, and possibly as large as 8,500. We will have several million dollars of state-of-the-art equipment – arguably the newest and best in the country – for hands-on training.”

Briefly, biopharmaceutical manufacturing has three tiers: small molecule, large molecule and cell/gene therapy.

“We don’t really have a better breakout of that last tier,” Hamm said. “As an industry, we just lump them together. Small molecule encompasses stuff like aspirin and antibiotics. Large molecule is biologics, like Humira, and gene therapy includes CRISPR.”

Oklahoma City currently has companies like Cytovance Biologics and Wheeler Bio that are large molecule manufacturers, but it does not have any small molecule or gene therapy manufacturers, the latter of which, along with cell therapy of the sort done by OBI, could be a niche for biomanufacturing expansion in the state. 

“Developments with CRISPR are moving so fast that we can’t make it in large enough scale currently,” Hamm said. “It’s a huge problem, creating bottlenecks throughout the system, and scaling up the necessary infrastructure costs more than developing the products.” 

The BWTC is specifically designed to facilitate training for large molecule manufacturing, and the facility is the last step in what will likely be a certification process that puts qualified workers on the floor of Wheeler and Cytovance in much less time than it takes to finish an undergraduate degree. It’s part of a comprehensive plan that scientists like Dr. Stephanie Wickham, Senior Director of Research and Development at Cytovance, hope will make Oklahoma a hub in all three phases of the biologics life cycle: research, manufacturing, and clinical trials.

“We won’t get money directly from the grants, but it does support the infrastructure of manufacturing by providing us with a trained workforce who only require a high school diploma and some specialized training,” Wickham said. “To scale up, we need a talent pipeline, or companies would have to consider relocation.”

Boren said the BWTC will finalize training that can begin as early as high school. In fact, she’s in conversations with high schools, career techs and community colleges about what the curriculum would look like. 

“After the classroom training, the students would come to the training camp to get hands-on work with specialized equipment to develop the actual skills and knowledge to be immediately employable at Cytovance or Wheeler,” Boren said. “The potential is that they could make $50,000 a year without a degree.”

The facility itself is slated for completion in May 2024, but the classes can begin anytime if they are offered at other educational institutions. The BWTC will have classroom space, but the bulk is designed for hands-on training.

To Hamm’s point, making science work available to non-scientists is a bold strategy, one that could diversify the economy, and move Oklahoma closer to being an innovation hub in the area of biomanufacturing. 

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