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September 27, 2015 | Tom Ballard

South College making its pharmacy labs available to life science start-ups

South College Pharmacy(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story is particularly timely with the opening today of Life Science Tennessee’s annual conference in Nashville.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

Four instructional laboratories located on the second floor of a highly visible building off I-40 in West Knoxville offer exciting new possibilities for local entrepreneurs in the life science sector.

The well-equipped labs are part of South College, a long-time private institution in Knoxville that launched its accredited School of Pharmacy about five years ago. The institution, established in 1882 as a branch of the Nashville Business College, was renamed in 1900 as Knoxville Business College and adopted the South College name in 2001.

Today, the college’s main campus is located off I-40 at Lonas Drive.  Its second Knoxville campus, which houses the School of Pharmacy among other professional programs, occupies a significant portion of the old Goody’s Family Clothing headquarters building off Parkside Drive between I-40 and Peters Road.

The School of Pharmacy laboratories were built and equipped to serve students pursuing their Doctor of Pharmacy degree and provide faculty research space, but there is available capacity and vision for additional impact.

“Making these lab facilities available is a way that we can provide a community service to the region’s scientific community,” Jacob Dunbar, Chair of Pharmaceutical Sciences, told us during a recent tour of the facilities. “Our President – Steve South – said he would like to see our space fully utilized.”

For now, that offer comes with little or no cost to the entrepreneur.

As a retired public higher education executive, I was reminded that South College is a private institution that is not required to embrace the philosophy of community service in the way that a land-grant university must. So, the interest in helping grow the region’s life science sector is indeed very refreshing.

For Dunbar, a former executive with GlaxoSmithKline, this commitment is music to his ears. His 22-year career with the global corporate pharmaceutical giant included 11 years in pharmaceutical technology and drug product development, followed by another 11 years as VP of Worldwide Bioanalysis in preclinical development and global DMPK. That history, coupled with a faculty interested in contributing to the effort, offers great promise for a part of the state where life science entrepreneurship is not as robust as in Nashville and Memphis, for example.

“President South wants us to be recognized as a resource for the region and to offer our space on a free or modest cost basis for new start-ups that need the capabilities in our labs,” Dunbar explained.

We were introduced to the corporate executive turned educator by Bem Culiat, Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer at NellOne Therapeutics, a start-up entrepreneur previously profiled on  She joined the tour and later discussion, where the former researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory underscored just how valuable the South College opportunity is.

Culiat noted that any start-up is usually financially challenged to some extent, and this is particularly the case with life science companies that need a long time runway and considerable investment capital.

“It (having access to a fully equipped rental lab space) allows you to not put too much money in equipment, lab management tasks like biowaste management and disposal, but rather in your research and personnel,” Culiat says. She knows from experience the impact since NellOne had to establish its own lab because space like that now available for life science start-ups at South College was non-existent in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region.

Even though her start-up established its own lab in Oak Ridge during the early years of the company, NellOne was not able to do all of its work locally. The tissue culture and gene expression research was done at contract research labs in Washington State and Massachusetts and at universities like the University of Pittsburgh McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

“It would have been so much better to have done some of our cell and molecular biology experiments in rental space like this in East Tennessee,” Culiat said, citing convenience, lower costs and ability to personally oversee projects and tweak protocols quickly. In addition, this lab space at South College does not require signing a long-term lease. A young company can go in, conduct a specific project for a few months and pay costs only for that period of time.

During the walking tour of South College’s labs, Culiat commented on the state-of-the-art equipment and lab space. She was particularly impressed with the capabilities for animal and human cell culture, storage of tissues, gene expression and protein/drug properties analysis.

Dunbar shared a list of the equipment in the labs (South College School of Pharmacy) and the type of techniques that can be performed there. They include cell and tissue culture, immunoassay, western blot, real-time quantitative PCR, fluorescence microscopy, high performance liquid chromatography, and formulation development and testing.

One of School of Pharmacy’s newest faculty members is Maha Abdalla, an Assistant Professor and pharmacist-researcher, who shares Dunbar’s enthusiasm for working with start-ups.

“We want to be on the map in translational research in molecular therapeutics to bridge the gap between bench and bedside and improve patient outcomes,” she says.

Those interested in exploring a specific relationship with South College should contact Dunbar at

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