SALT LAKE CITY — In year one, this company innovated a new product that is aiming to replace skin grafts, using the patient's own skin cells to create a gel that regrows skin over a burned or wounded area.
In year two, the company evolved its technology to do the same thing with bone tissue, which can be used to help regrow bone loss due to injury or disease.
In that same two years, PolarityTE grew from two to 200 employees, expanded from a 4,000-square-foot space at the University of Utah's Research Park to 400,000 square feet of facilities and, on Tuesday, hosted a grand opening of an expansive new lab space on Salt Lake City's west side.
But Polarity co-founder and CEO Dr. Denver Lough, a San Francisco native who was a burn specialist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center before launching his startup, keeps getting a question that seems to ignore the astounding medical progress his company is making.
Why are you in Utah?
Lough said Utah was not on the radar in the effort's early days when financing a new company was the most important first task, but a fortuitous meeting with a potential investor in the state led to some revelations.
"To be completely honest, prior to communicating with a venture capital firm that had contacted us, Utah was not on the map," Lough said. "But then we heard about the robust networks that were in place in the biotech space and were introduced to numerous companies and individuals that convinced us to seriously consider the option."
Lough said Utah's central location also played in its favor, since Polarity would ultimately be manufacturing products that would have very definite, and critical considerations in both receiving sensitive biological samples from patients and their caregivers, and a time-critical turnaround in returning the treatment products. And there was the more simple matter of the cost of doing business.
"I am from the Bay Area and my co-founder is from Boston," Lough said. "Both are vibrant centers for medical research and technology … but both places can be incredibly expensive locations for launching a business."
So, in a sort of reverse migration, running opposite of a trend of Utah's homegrown talent seeking their fortunes in the coastal hotbeds of innovation, Lough and company brought their idea to the Beehive State. And, he said it's a decision that hasn't caused him a moment of regret.
"Truly, there is a great foundation of biotech here with Myriad Genetics and BioFire just two examples," Lough said. "What we've found is just incredible human capital, being fed by BYU, the U. and Utah State. And, we've been able to bring talent back into the state, with people who left years ago due to a lack of opportunities in life sciences."
Lough said the company has also been able to just do more than they could have elsewhere with the $140 million the company has raised through a modified merger and secondary offering. Currently, Polarity is able to process a harvested skin sample into SkinTE in as little as three hours and can, in many cases, both receive, produce and return the treatment in a single day.
BioUtah President and CEO Kelvyn Cullimore, himself a veteran of the life sciences industry having co-founded and run the Cottonwood Heights-based medical device company Dynatronics, said a new and welcome trend is emerging in the Utah biotech space.
"What we're starting to see is startups both making the decision to stay here to develop their innovations and move here to do the same," Cullimore said. "Recursion Pharmaceuticals and PolarityTE are two great examples of the kinds of companies we're attracting."
While Polarity's new space, currently housing the processing of both SkinTE and OsteoTE treatment products, as well as the company's research and development lab it calls the Advanced Research Center, has plenty of room for growth, Lough said there's so much more on the horizon.Comment on this story
Lough hinted that Polarity is aggressively pursuing expansion of the company's core technology and believes there are opportunities on the near horizon to do the same regenerative techniques to produce ligament and cartilage tissue, cardiac tissue, lung tissue, gastrointestinal tissue and even the potential to regenerate the tissues of hollow and solid organs.
"What keeps me up at night is not short-sellers or competition … it's trying to keep up with the work," Lough said. "Deciding how to prioritize and pursue next steps effectively and efficiently."
For more on PolarityTE visit polarityte.com.