Passersby in the small city of Franklin could be easily deceived by the charming little historical building tucked in the quaint downtown, but inside the unassuming exterior is a small but mighty workforce toiling away on high-tech equipment—a single piece of which can cost $300,000—to help uncover a COVID-19 vaccine. As a small contract research organization, B2S Life Sciences continues to serve its drug development clients, but has nimbly launched a new effort to also help scientists quickly open the door to a COVID-19 vaccine.
Founded in 2015 as the brainchild of three Eli Lilly and Company alumni, B2S typically helps companies develop pharmaceuticals by performing data analytics and building testing capabilities to measure the efficacy of potential drugs. But like many other Hoosier life sciences companies, B2S is adding a layer of work in response to COVID-19.
“There are now 120 companies stating they’re developing [COVID-19] vaccines,” says B2S Life Sciences Chief Executive Officer Aleks Davis. “We decided we’d build some test capabilities—very similar to what we normally do—but specifically for COVID-19. Because a vaccine is a therapeutic in the drug development community, that’s really where our focus has been.”
Formerly a New Yorker, Davis connected with Mount Sinai Hospital in hard-hit New York City to obtain hundreds of patient samples that B2S has been analyzing in their lab. The company’s COVID-19 work centers on developing a test that drug development companies could use to evaluate the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccine candidates. Davis says B2S Life Sciences’ tool will have the ability to test a potential vaccine’s effectiveness specifically for SARS-CoV-2, and not be confused by similar viruses.
“This virus is very, very similar to…SARS and MERS—coronaviruses that have been in the public in the last decade or so,” says Davis. “So we’re putting our efforts toward making that differentiation between them.”
Davis says having such a test readily available could help speed the development of COVID-19 vaccines. The small company is looking to connect with a partner that is either developing a vaccine or analyzing vaccine samples to use its test.
“Normally, a company comes to us and says, ‘We want to measure this protein or this biomarker.’ They want it, we make it, and they’re going to use it,” says Davis. “This is a different model for us. The need is out there, but they’re not coming to our front door. So the next step is identifying central laboratories or companies that are going to be set up to run and support vaccine trials. We want to get them this test in a timely manner to help expedite the clinical trial and development process.”
Adding the extra layer of work focused on COVID-19 has demanded more manpower—the company has added five employees in recent weeks—and required B2S to accept a new level of risk.
“We’re not risking the company on it by any means, but we’re risking finances and resources on it,” says Davis. “We’ve worked with the Indiana Economic Development Corp. on tax credits…we’ve received R&D tax credits before, so [B2S] is a beneficiary of the community we’re in; those things are very, very helpful for a small company. [Focusing on COVID-19] is an opportunity to take what we know and apply it to something we feel like is needed in an urgent manner.”
Offsetting that risk is an uptick in demand for the company’s standard work, much of which comes from pharmaceutical hubs on the East and West Coasts.
“The Boston/Cambridge area, San Francisco and San Diego were all hit really hard with COVID-19; they essentially shut down, so we ended up getting a lot of work as a result,” says Davis. “In the past few weeks, we’ve hired people to keep up with things.”
The company’s rapid growth has taken it from about 10 employees in 2017 to nearly 40.
“To be able to grow in a community like Franklin has been very rewarding, and we look forward to continuing that,” says Davis. “And we’re excited about working with novel therapeutics that are going to be coming out in the future. Now more than ever, people are recognizing the importance of medical research.”
Davis says COVID-19 has altered what a typical workday looks like at B2S.
Davis says developing a tool for companies to test a vaccine candidate could speed the path to clinical trials.