BioSpark Labs Igniting Innovation for Biotech Startups

BioSpark Trio

BioSpark Labs is the newest best kept secret at Georgia Tech. Left to right: Ryan Lawler, Marvin Whiteley, Pooja Tiwari

Ryan Lawler realized early on in her academic career that a scientist with a great idea can potentially change the world.

“But I didn’t realize the role that real estate can play in that,” said Lawler, general manager of BioSpark Labs – the collaborative, shared laboratory environment taking shape at Science Square at Georgia Tech.

Sitting adjacent to the Tech campus and formerly known as Technology Enterprise Park, Science Square is being reactivated and positioned as a life sciences research destination. The 18-acre site is abuzz with new construction, as an urban mixed-use development rises from the property.

Meanwhile, positioned literally on the ground floor of all this activity is BioSpark Labs, located in a former warehouse, fortuitously adjacent to the Global Center for Medical Innovation. It’s one of the newer best-kept secrets in the Georgia Tech research community.

BioSpark exists because the Georgia Tech Real Estate Office,  led by Associate Vice President Tony Zivalich, recognized the need of this kind of lab space. Zivalich and his team have overseen the ideation, design, and funding of the facility, partnering with Georgia Advanced Technology Ventures, as well as the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, and the core facilities of the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience.

“We are in the middle of a growing life sciences ecosystem, part of a larger vision in biotech research,” said Lawler, who was hired on to manage the space, bringing to the job a wealth of experience as a former research scientist and lab manager with a background in molecular and synthetic biology.

Researchers’ Advocate

BioSpark was designed to be a launch pad for high-potential entrepreneurs. It provides a fully equipped and professionally operated wet lab, in addition to a clean room, meeting and office space, to its current roster of clients, five life sciences and biotech startup, a number certain to increase – because BioSpark is undergoing a dramatic expansion that will include 11 more labs (shared and private space), an autoclave room, equipment and storage rooms.

“We want to provide the necessary services and support that an early-stage company needs to begin lab operations on day one,” said Lawler, who has put together a facility with $1.7 million in lab equipment. “I understand our clients’ perspective, I understand researchers and their experiments, and their needs, because I have first-hand proficiency in that world. So, I can advocate on their behalf.”

CO2 incubators, a spectrophotometer, a biosafety cabinet, a fume hood, a -80° freezer, an inverted microscope, and the autoclave are among the wide range of apparatus. Plus, a virtual treasure trove of equipment is available to BioSpark clients off-site through the the Petit Institute's core lab facilities on the Georgia Tech campus.

“One of the unique things about us is, we’re agnostic,” Lawler said. “That is, our startups can come from anywhere. We have companies that have grown out of labs at Georgia State, Alabama State, Emory, and Georgia Tech. And we have interest from entrepreneurs from San Diego, who are considering relocating people from mature biotech markets to our space.”

Ground Floor Companies

Marvin Whiteley wants to help humans win the war against bacteria, and he has a plan, something he’s been cooking up for about 10 years, which has now manifested in his start-up company, SynthBiome, one of the five startups based at BioSpark Labs.

“We can discover a lot of antibiotics in the lab but translating them into the clinic has been a major challenge – antibiotic resistance is the main reason,” said Whiteley, professor in the School of Biological Sciences at Georgia Tech. “Something might work in a test tube easily enough and it might work in a mouse. But the thing is, bacteria know that mice are different - and so bacteria act differently in mice than in humans.”

SynthBiome was built to help accelerate drug discovery. With that goal in mind, Whiteley and has team set out to develop a better, more effective preclinical model. “We basically learned to let the bacteria tell us what it’s like to be in a human,” Whiteley said. “So, we created a human environment in a test tube.”

Whiteley has said a desire to help people is foundational to his research. He wants to change how successful therapies are made. The same can be said for Dr. Pooja Tiwari, who launched her company, Arnav Biotech, to develop mRNA-based therapeutics and vaccines. Arnav Biotech also serves as a contract researcher and manufacturer, helping other researchers and companies interested in exploring mRNA in their work.

“There are only a handful of people who have deep knowledge of working in mRNA research, and this limits the access to it” said Tiwari, a former postdoctoral researcher at Georgia Tech and Emory. “We’d like to democratize access to mRNA-based therapeutics and vaccines by developing accessible and cost-effective mRNA therapeutics for global needs”.

Arnav – which has RNA right there in the name – in Sanskrit means ‘ocean.’ An ocean has no discernible borders, and Tiwari is working to build a biotech company that eliminates borders in equitable access to mRNA-based therapeutics and vaccines.

With this mission in mind, Arnav is developing mRNA-based, broad-spectrum antivirals as well as vaccines against pandemic potential viruses before the next pandemic hits. Arnav has recently entered in a collaboration with Sartorius BIA Separations, a company based on Slovenia, to advance their mRNA pipeline. While building its own mRNA therapeutics pipeline, Arnav is also helping other scientists explore mRNA as an alternative therapeutic and vaccine platform through its contract services. 

“I think of the vaccine scientist who makes his medicine using proteins, but would like to explore the mRNA option,” Tiwari posits. “Maybe he doesn’t want to make the full jump into it. That’s where we come in, helping to drive interest in this field and help that scientist compare his traditional vaccines to see what mRNA vaccines looks like.”

She has all the equipment and instruments that she needs at BioSpark Labs and was one of the first start-ups to put down roots there. So far, it’s been the perfect partnership, Tiwari said, adding, “It kind of feels like BioSpark and Arnav are growing up together.”


Ryan Lawler

Ryan Lawler

Marvin Whiteley

Marvin Whiteley

Pooja Tiwari

Pooja Tiwari

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Writer: Jerry Grillo