Elizabeth Hayes, Portland Business Journal
Nov 30, 2016
Jennifer Fox was taking a risk when she accepted an offer to head a newly formed research institute to be based at Portland State University in 2008.At the time, Fox was happily working as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oregon’s Center for Ecology and Evolutionary Biology for five years. But she thought the Oregon Translational Research and Development Institute (OTRADI) had a lot of potential.
She was intrigued by the challenge of building a lab from scratch and rather than being micro-focused on her own research, helping a broad swath of investigators take their discoveries from the lab to the real world. After learning about the lack of lab space in Portland, Fox also spearheaded the creation of an incubator to give biotech startups a springboard to commercial viability.
Located on Portland’s South Waterfront, the OTRADI Bioscience Incubator (OBI) launched in 2013 with six startups. It provides lab space, entrepreneurial support and mentoring for emerging bioscience, medical device, digital health and therapeutic companies.
The incubator has since grown to 17 companies and one, AbSci, is preparing to leave the roost for larger digs to accommodate its rapid growth. Fox isn’t worried about filling the space. OBI has a waiting list and now has an outpost in Corvallis.
We caught up with her before the Thanksgiving holiday to find out more about what makes her tick.
What made you want to study genetics? Were you a science kid? No, not at all. I thought I was going to go to art school. I was a huge fan of science fiction, and I’m sad to admit, that’s what got me into it. When I went to college and took the molecular biology and genetics prerequisites, I realized, wow, they’re really doing the genetic work they’re talking about in these stories. It just called to me, and I had a good professor who said, “Work in my lab for the summer.” I did my experimental genetics and that was the most fun thing I learned in college.
What was it about genetics that got you so fired up? It was unlocking these secrets of nature. You learn about what’s behind the things you see in everyday life. I started out in my bachelors degree working on symbiosis, how plants and bacteria can co-exist and make each other flourish. I thought that was super neat, and I looked at the genetics behind it. I decided I wanted to keep studying it. I realized to be a bench scientist, you need to keep going and keep going. I went from plants to looking at genetics in people and in disease. In the ‘90s, they thought every disease would have a corresponding gene. It was very engaging. You think, “I’m going to find this gene and cure high blood pressure,” and then you realize nature is far more complicated. Most diseases are mutligenic and have environmental components.
Why did you come to work for OTRADI? It had this great potential. This was a drug discovery lab. It was intriguing because of the broad interest and not just going down the rabbit hole of studying one gene for life. That’s what drew me in, and the potential of building a lab from scratch. It was also a little risky. I was the first scientist hired, but not the last. We had a dream team of scientists. All of us intended to go to the university systems and recruit people to use the facility. Our goal was to help them do translational, or applied, research.
How did you come up with the incubator idea? We worked with professors from 2008 to 2012, and as they were becoming successful and these great scientific ideas were actually working, these people started to spin off companies. We kept hearing the same story, where the roadblock was that there was no physical lab space. They kept facing what I thought was a silly hurdle. The hard part is the science. It shouldn’t be finding space. I thought, “Why can’t we do this?” I’ve worked in labs for 25 years, but never built out a lab. We were able to talk to people at Business Oregon and convince them we were the people to do this and the demand was there.
Some have even outgrown the space. Are you proud of the success? I’m proud of these guys. I have a maternal feeling toward them, like watching your kids grow up. We’ll have a long legacy of companies that will graduate and still be involved as mentors.
Do you do much science these days, since your role involves so much property management? I do a lot of both. Depending on the day, it’s a spectrum. I could be changing thermostats and be an on-the-fly janitor and still help them with scientific work. It’s really rewarding because I can help them on so many more levels. If they don’t know something about commercial real estate, I can bridge those gaps, so they can focus on the science.
Do you miss the South? I miss it but don’t think I could live there permanently. It’s super fun to visit. I miss the food and being able to swim in the ocean.