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Q&A: Becraft, EDC Hope To Develop Peoria Into Biomanufacturing Hub

Jake Becraft
Strand Theraputics
Jake Becraft

A group of Peoria-area community and business leaders hope to develop the city into a major biomanufacturing center in the next several years.

Lenora Fisher, director of business attraction for the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, said the Peoria Bio-Made Initiative wants to highlight the city's assets for the growing medical advancement industry.

“We have a very highly educated workforce and talent pipeline: through Bradley, through the medical school, through Jump Simulation, and with some of the doctors who are researchers,” said Fisher. “We have like 250-plus either Ph.D. or M.D. researchers in the biomedical field already here.”

One of the leaders of the Peoria Bio-Made Initiative is Jake Becraft, a Metamora High School graduate who is co-founder and CEO of Strand Therapeutics, a Massachusetts-based biomanufacturing start-up.

Last week, Becraft and the EDC coordinated a virtual meet-and-greet to connect stakeholders and share their vision for growing the biomanufacturing industry in Peoria.

“We started working together to evaluate opportunities, and what we kind of discovered was that we have all the pieces, but it's kind of still a start-up in the sense that we kind of need to bring it all together and really recognize it and make a kind of coherent push,” said Fisher.

Becraft recently spoke with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon about the Peoria Bio-Made Initiative and what it hopes to accomplish.

Joe Deacon: First, can you tell me about Strand Therapeutics? What does your company do?

Jake Becraft: So Strand Therapeutics is a company that merged off of work that myself and some co-workers were doing at MIT, that was focused on messenger RNA technology. So messenger RNA is the same sort of technology that underlies the COVID vaccines, and it has a lot of advantages in the speed and efficiency at which you can bring medicines forward — why it won the COVID vaccine race. We use the same sort of technologies, but aim it at treating diseases like cancer and also rare diseases.

Can you give a little bit more of a layman's explanation of what messenger RNA is?

Becraft: Absolutely. So in your body, most people know from high school that your genes are contained in your DNA, which are inside the nucleus of the cell. And what genes do is they essentially encode proteins, and the proteins are what your body is made out of: it makes up collagen, to every single thing that you think about is being "quote-unquote," you.

But the way that the genes actually are transmitted from the nucleus of the cell into the outside of the cell, where they actually become proteins and kind of go about what we call “life,” is through what's really called a message, and that's messenger RNA, or mRNA. And so your body uses that technology to send signals for the cells to make these different sorts of genes and proteins.

What we can do is we can utilize that same message to actually deliver all sorts of different proteins that can fix things like genetic diseases, or it can teach your body how to fight a virus. It can really do a whole number of things.

So you were in Peoria last week for the Peoria Bio-Made Initiative meet-and-greet. Can you tell me what this Peoria biomed initiative is and what it hopes to do?

Becraft: Absolutely. So I think messenger RNA, and how fast it has become a piece of our national and really international conversation, is really just a preview of what's going on in the biotech ecosystem. Biotech has been really exploding with new and revolutionary technologies for the past 10-20 years.

So, Peoria Bio-Made was really something that emerged out of conversations I was having with former Mayor Jim Ardis, as well as the (Greater) Peoria Economic Development Council, about: what are the new inflecting technologies that are on the horizon that Peoria — you know, when it comes to technology maybe Peoria has to fight with Silicon Valley for prominence — what are new areas of technology where Peoria could really make investments and hopefully create new economic opportunities?

And so biotech — and the next generation of biotech: mRNA, and all sorts of new gene and cell therapy technologies — while it is really expanding and exploding into the market, it doesn't have huge areas or entire economies that have built up around manufacturing, for instance. So a lot of research and development is done in Cambridge, Mass., actually where my research and development company is located. But a lot of the manufacturing is done kind of ad hoc across the nation.

So the value proposition to me was: What can we do today to better position Peoria to play a part in this global sort of opportunity to expand the economy by building new biomanufacturing infrastructure?

What makes the Peoria area such a good place for this type of initiative?

Becraft: So first of all, I think a lot of people when you grow up in Peoria, you hear the story of penicillin manufacturing being perfected at the USDA ag lab, and the sort of benefits that breakthrough had — for first, our fight against the Nazis and broader conquering World War II, and then conquering bacterial infections in the later 20th century. And so starting with sort of that nucleus of biomanufacturing innovation, combined with the past 70 years of advanced manufacturing that's been pioneered by Caterpillar, really puts Peoria in this next generation manufacturing capability with a history of biotech manufacturing innovation.

That combined with the fact that Peoria’s economy is incredibly well-educated while also having an incredibly low cost of living compared to the rest of the country, that economic opportunity and the margin at which companies can operate makes it very attractive for biomanufacturing, which needs large amounts of land, large amounts of big manufacturing lab spaces, while also requiring a very educated workforce.

And so that intersection only happens in a few areas in the entire country, where you have such educated folks combined with a lower cost of living. That, I think, just in and of itself presents an opportunity for Peoria to really take advantage.

Now, then further combined with the sort of medical excellence that Peoria pioneers from our great hospital systems to the presence of the University of Illinois College of Medicine and Peoria, those sorts of opportunities just, I mean, they scream this opportunity in my face to say that Peoria could be a site of excellence of the world of manufacturing these next-generation technologies.

What kind of information were you able to share or were you able to receive during this meet-and-greet event a week ago?

Becraft: What my major focus with Peoria Bio-Made has been to date is really just getting the word out, right? So, to help people understand what “Peoria Bio-Made” means; a lot of people have heard about it, they've seen me on different sorts of media outlets across Peoria, talking about the opportunity and what we can build if we unite together. I think it was a chance to bring the community of interested persons together, to kind of present to them: “This is what we're working on, these are our initiatives,” and those initiatives have always been three-fold.

It is: Work with local, state, and federal leaders to create incentivization programs and access opportunities for economic development, and incentivize companies to come to the region through different sorts of policy metrics. It's educational: to prep a workforce, working in partnership with groups like Bradley University to build the workforce that will be needed to sustain these biomanufacturing jobs that we hope to bring. And third, and finally — and arguably most importantly — it's liaison and reaching out to these biomanufacturing companies, and also working to maybe even create our own companies in the central Illinois region that can take advantage of these economic opportunities, and then build further economic opportunities for the people of Peoria and just create more economic diversity in the region.

What would you say are some of the short-term or long-term goals of the bio-made initiative, then? Do you have a timetable at all?

Becraft: So, I think in the next three years, we want to be at the point where we have created a centralized database of economic opportunities, incentivization schemes, federal grants and state grants that are available to companies to use, to reach out to them and help companies to access them.

I think in three years, we'll also have wanted to successfully recruited at least one, or one to three biomanufacturers. In the very near term, in the next year, for instance, we want to be initiating some economic development opportunities to actually develop properties, specifically targeting the Warehouse District as an opportunity to build these buildings and get the construction underway that makes these buildings kind of ready to have labs built into them, and really lower the barrier of entry for other sorts of manufacturers to come in and be able to kind of slot their program immediately right into the area.

Then, continue to build that ecosystem over the next 5-10 years. We’ll hope to have a multitude of companies, a multitude of opportunities, an entire ecosystem of biomanufacturing that exists in the region. I mean, my true dream is that the Warehouse District just becomes incredibly filled with, you know, the inside of the buildings are these next-generation lab facilities that are cranking out therapeutics for use across the world. And that level of employment that offers, really helps to revitalize that district as well, and revitalize downtown Peoria in general with tons of high-paying, good science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs.

Do you envision Strand having a presence in Peoria?

Becraft: We're at such an early stage that I hesitate to make any sorts of promises, but I mean, absolutely I would. I think the most perfect end to the story is that Peoria Bio-Made, you know, through just my passion to see Peoria develop as an economy and my want to see good happen in the region, and then through Peoria Bio-Made, we create the infrastructure that in five years when my company is looking for building out a manufacturing site, that that ecosystem is already up and running and a start-up like Strand can actually take advantage of that and participate in the community, because I truly believe that there is a an incredible amount of opportunity there.

Coming from the east coast, what draws you to central Illinois?

Becraft: So I actually grew up in Metamora, Germantown Hills more specifically. I went to Metamora High School, graduated there in 2009, and then went down the street to the University of Illinois and got my bachelor's degree in chemical engineering before making the jump out here to Boston a little short of 10 years ago. So when I came out here to do my Ph.D. in 2013, I always maintained a connection there. My family, I still have lots of family that are around the region: My grandmother and my mother both still live in the area, as well as other family members. It's a place where I've always seen potential.

I think people like Kim Blickenstaff actually helped encourage me. Kim and I are both biotech CEOs, obviously at different points in our careers. Kim's had many decades of experience, and the ability to really amass sort of a capital behind him. I think where I'm coming from it is: seeing that, seeing what he did and being inspired by it, I kind of just thought like, “Well, you know, why wait?”

I think that now's a great time, and with what Kim and his development community and other leaders in the area have been doing, it's a great time to build up an economic opportunity at the exact same time. So I really just want to be a part of that, and I want to be a part of shaping the future of what Peoria can be.

From an entire economic standpoint, you see a lot of potential in the Peoria market, then?

Becraft: Absolutely. I mean, with what has happened with COVID, and how we have seen workforce development and the increasing opportunity for remote work and work from home … Plenty of people love living in cities, in large cities. But that's not everyone, and it shouldn't be that all of the technology and economic opportunities are only located in those cities.

With things like work-from-home, you can live in a place where you can buy a gorgeous, beautiful house for, you know, a third of the cost of a tiny condo in Boston or New York, and still access the same job with the same salary and really the same sort of working potential. I think things like that, and the investment that people like Kim are putting into the region, really open up Peoria’s economic future.

And I think all it's going to take is for a number of people that that want to actually see it succeed to bring forward new ideas for the region, and those ideas can be enacted by the incredibly talented workforce on the ground. I think that's part of what inspired me about what Kim is doing with real estate development is, he's bringing ideas that he's seen from a lifetime of traveling the globe and living in California, and he's bringing those ideas back, because I think in Peoria, there's just an incredible thirst for new ideas.

So what I'm hoping that Peoria Bio-Made is, is just another one of those new ideas. We won't be the thing that transforms the entire city, but I do hope that we're a cornerstone of that new economy that takes hold in Peoria.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.