Michael Browning was a professor at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center when he started producing antibodies to use for his research in neuroscience. The National Institutes of Health, which had provided funding, suggested he start commercial production so other scientists would have tools to study proteins and their connection to diseases.
In the late 1980s, Browning’s inventory of antibodies was small enough to fit on one shelf of a freezer. Now, his company, PhosphoSolutions, produces more than 350 types of antibodies. The small vials are shipped to labs around the world. And instead of one shelf in one freezer, vials in stacks of metal boxes fill huge chest freezers in his company’s lab.
Browning credits the Fitzsimons Innovation Community, a biosciences facility on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, for allowing him to build the company while continuing to teach and conduct his research.
“Fitzsimons was a perfect fit for me as a young professor with an idea and wanting to maybe start a business to develop that idea. And all I had to do was walk across the parking lot,” Browning said.
That was the kind of scenario Aurora and University of Colorado leaders had in mind when they envisioned a biotechnical center that would benefit from being next door to the University of Colorado medical school, hospital and research facilities. The entire campus, which is on the site of the former Fitzsimons Army base, is now an economic powerhouse, pumping about $7 billion into the economy and employing about 23,000 people, according to a 2017 CU study.
About 70 companies of varying sizes and longevity are housed in three buildings in the bioscience park.
“The idea was to have commercial buildings on this side so someone in the university — a professor, a researcher — could teach his class in the morning, visit his patients afterward and head over to the Fitzsimons Innovation Community to visit his company without ever getting back in his car,” said Vicki Jenings, the facility’s director of business relations.
The vision was hatched as Paul Tauer, then Aurora mayor, joined Vincent Fulginiti, the CU Health Sciences Center chancellor, and Dennis Brimhall, CU Hospital president, in talks with the Defense Department about transforming the 577-acre decommissioned Army post into a sprawling medical and research complex.
Aurora and the university teamed up to create the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority to oversee the transformation of the base, which closed in 1999. At its peak employment, about 7,000 people worked at the Army base. More than $4 billion has been spent on new construction at the site.
A metropolitan taxing district was established to help finance the transformation, spurred by the relocation of the CU Health Sciences Center from Denver. One of the goals was to help researchers and faculty members commercialize their technology.
Other buildings on the campus include Children’s Hospital Colorado and the new Veterans Affairs hospital as well as some residences.
The Fitzsimons Innovation Community, originally dubbed the Fitzsimons Life District, opened for business in 2000. Jenings said the center wanted to grow its own companies through an incubator approach as well as provide space and services for ventures wanting to relocate and businesses looking to expand. Jenings said some businesses just needed a place to “plug in and play.” Some were ready to take over their own lab, while others were so small all they needed was part of a lab bench. They all have access to shared conference rooms, internet and support services.
The companies are developing and producing medical devices, working in diagnostics and health information technology. Some are not involved in biotech, but want to be in a supportive, scientific environment, Jenings said.
As more ventures signed on, the original Bioscience 1 building was expanded in 2011. An existing space from the Army days, where eyeglasses were made, was renovated to make more room. Veterans Affairs leases most of that building now.
And a new building with custom-built workplaces for growing companies was built in 2015. Construction is starting on a fourth building on part of the old Fitzsimons golf course. The building is expected to open in September 2019. A couple of other facilities are already on the drawing board.
“I’ve joked that the campus mascot ought to be a crane,” said Donald Elliman Jr., chancellor for the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.
The last three or so years, the activity at the Fitzsimons Innovation Community has “really started to explode,” added Elliman, the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority board chairman.
“We have two nationally ranked hospitals. We have a highly ranked school of medical pharmacy. And we have this opportunity to grow commercial activity literally across the street,” he said.
While the bioscience industry is growing in the state, Elliman describes Colorado as an emerging leader rather than at the forefront.
“The poles of bioscience development are historically on the coasts: Boston, D.C., the San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego,” Elliman said. “But we are growing and growing rapidly. Some of those historic centers are becoming more cost-prohibitive, and that’s a plus for us.”
This month, The Economist reported that skyrocketing housing and other costs are among the reasons high-tech companies are looking beyond California’s Silicon Valley to branch out.
More than 725 bioscience companies are in Colorado and support about 30,000 direct jobs and roughly 129,000 indirect jobs, according to the Colorado Bioscience Association. The number of direct jobs increased 5.3 percent from 2014 to 2016. The industry’s products are Colorado’s leading export, accounting for 16 percent of all exports in 2015 at about $1.2 billion, the trade association said.
Fitzsimons officials view the bioscience park’s location and its large amount of land as crucial edges in attracting more entrepreneurs. Other universities work with researchers and faculty members to develop their technology, Jenings said, but most bioscience facilities aren’t right next door to a university, hospital or research centers. She said Steve Van Nurden, the president and CEO of the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority, started the commercial arm of Mayo Clinic and helped start more than 50 biotech companies, which then had to relocate to keep growing.
“He has said that what excited him about Fitzsimons is that he can spin those companies out here and they can stay in this community,” Jenings said.
To date, more than 750 jobs have been created through the Fitzsimons Innovation Community and about $800 million raised from grants, investors and venture capital, according to the staff.
“My observation is that it is the incubator of the business of the future,” said Aurora Mayor Bob LeGare, a member of the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority board.
The Anschutz Medical Campus overall has been “just an unprecedented economic generator for the city of Aurora, especially the older, original part of Aurora,” LeGare said.
When Browning moved his company into the bioscience facility, he shared space with another business because he couldn’t afford his own.
“I didn’t know anything about running a business, so when I came over here the people in (Jenings’) office had tax advice, legal advice,” Browning said. “We had monthly meetings where we could learn from other people who had run businesses.”
Browning’s business now has six employees and occupies 2,654 square feet.
Sharklet Technologies didn’t get its start at the Innovation Community, but it has expanded since relocating there. University of Florida professor Anthony Brennan founded the company while working with the U.S. Office of Naval Research on finding ways to stop algae, barnacles and tube worms from sticking to the sides of ships.
Some marine animals end up encrusted with the same kind of organisms, but not sharks. Brennan began working on a product that mimics shark skin and is designed to reduce or prevent the growth of bacteria on surfaces without using chemicals. His company has applied the material, which uses a series of interlocking raised micro-features, on urinary catheters to prevent infection and is working on a wound dressing designed to speed up healing.
“The University of Florida has an incubator, and we started there,” Brennan said. “But our investors were friends of mine from Denver.”
So, Brennan, who had previously lived in Colorado, moved the company in 2009 to Fitzsimons, where he said people “really opened their doors to us.” The staff has grown from four to 23 employees.
“The Fitzsimons center has been so adept at adding more space when we’ve needed it and getting it modified,” said Brennan, who still teaches at the University of Florida.
Sharklet has a total of 7,900 square feet in three work spaces. Peaceful Union, a company in Hangzhou, China, acquired Sharklet last year, but Brennan said his company plans to stay put in Colorado.
“We have had phenomenal support, including from the state’s U.S. representatives and senators. It’s really been a team effort,” Brennan said.