After months of reminding the bureaucracy at the NIH that they promised us the remainder of our SBIR Phase I grant funding many months ago, we can now breathe a collective sigh of relief; the paperwork is complete and the second dose of funding has been infused into our HIV grant. This was important news for us, as we had been planning on that money to keep the science flowing as we prepare for the anti-cancer project Phase II funding. Our original Phase I grant, which began in June of 2010, is complete. We are officially in the gap between Phase I and Phase II for our anti-cancer therapeutics research. We are hoping to hear soon on Phase I funding for another project, but all we can do is cross our fingers in hopes that the NIH reviewers agree with our novel approach to screening compounds. In the meantime, according to Dr. Ruffner, we are moving steadily in the direction of interesting results and encouraging data. Methods and protocols are becoming more routine as we nail down the art behind our science. New ideas continue to incrementally improve our chances of success. Every one of our employees adds to the equation, and we appreciate each of our team members! The team generated some great results this week, including a screening test that clearly showed the difference between duds and promising peptides. Preliminary results are always helpful when we approach grant application due dates!
Speaking of great science, I neglected to mention in the last blog post that we celebrated the publication of our first scientific journal article in late May. The article is “Accessing the Hidden Majority of Marine Natural Products Through Metagenomics,” Donia MS, Ruffner DE, Cao S, Schmidt EW, ChemBioChem Volume 12, Issue 8, pp 1230-1236, May 16, 2011. We Symbionites are pleased to have contributed to this important line of research, and I’d like to congratulate Duane Ruffner for his successful adventure into the world of blue green algae and natural product research. And, of course, many thanks to our Symbion co-founder, Eric Schmidt, for allowing Symbion to contribute to his ARRA stimulus package grant through a subcontract with the University of Utah.
Another highlight for Symbion was that I (representing Symbion) was invited to attend a small gathering of Utah small businesses with Esther Vassar, the Small Business Administration Ombudsman. This event, referred to as the White House Business Council “Winning the Future Roundtable” was an intimate discussion of how the Obama Administration can help us succeed. Attendees brought lists of issues that should be addressed by the Obama Administration. The most common issues included health care costs, the burden of paperwork with US government grants/contracts and FDA regulations, and the difficulty of obtaining SBA loans. A few interesting tidbits that I jotted down included:
- Healthcare costs rose between 10 – 15% for small businesses last year and will again in 2011.
- 10% of the average time of small businesses in Utah is spent dealing with, recording, filing, submitted and tracking paperwork as a result of government regulations. Note that those present were all companies that were tied to the US Federal Government in one way or another.
- Small businesses across the US are getting smaller – as a result of productivity per employee rising and because many companies now prefer to contract with service providers rather than hire personnel (as a direct result of out of control healthcare costs).
- Small businesses are working in partnerships with other small businesses to create consortiums of companies to provide products and services. So, for example, a contractor will form a consortium of companies to create an organization capable of conducting large scale government contract projects. This is becoming the norm, and those present felt this trend would continue to grow. This has been Symbion’s approach, with grants having our company as the primary and other companies listed as the subs.
Miss Vassar was very gracious and I believe that everyone in the room left with the understanding that she and her staff are available for providing assistance when needed. If we had specific suggestions for her (rather than complaints), she would willingly pass the information along to those who can make the change.
This past month has also included pricing a variety of benefit packages for our employees. We are fortunate in that we can budget those costs right into the grants, and we tried to leave some wiggle room in those budgets for additional cost increases. It was discouraging to affirm that the cost of healthcare for small companies is truly out of control. As a group, we have no ability to pool with large groups of healthy people, and therefore the costs are at a maximum. And the really unfortunate part is that we have to decide quickly, or we will need to refill out all the forms and re-apply for insurance; the costs are rising so quickly that the quotes are only good for a short period of time. Our decision will be based on the likelihood of future funding, of course. Just one more strain for our young startup.
Well, wish us luck this coming month – we will be hearing soon regarding reviews, scores and summary statements for our recent proposals. If we can just hang in there for a few more grants, then we can move to the next step in our evolution; partnership arrangements with established companies. Hopefully the timing will cooperate with our plans and Symbion will continue to thrive well into the future.