Rick Naimark, Arizona State University’s associate vice president for program development and planning, stands in front of newly constructed research facilities downtown. Amanda Morris

Source: Amanda Morris, Arizona Republic on May 5, 2021

When Evan Darzi graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, the scientific job market in Phoenix was, in his estimation, bleak. Darzi went back to ASU for his master’s degree and he eventually left Arizona in search of better opportunities.

Now, Darzi’s company is one of many planning to move into a new science and technology building in downtown Phoenix. The building, which opened in late March, is intended to be an innovation center and was built by real estate company Wexford Science & Technology in partnership with ASU and Phoenix.

The 227,000 square foot building will house a startup incubator, ASU programs and private science and technology companies on its seven floors. The researchers and companies planning to move into the building cover a wide range of scientific expertise, such as cancer research and nutrition research.

Darzi, a Phoenix native, is the CEO and co-founder of ElectraTect, a company that is currently focused on making a tool to detect and measure recent marijuana consumption. He wants to make a tool that could be used the same way that alcohol breathalyzers are used today, to identify incapacitated drivers and help improve public safety.

“One of my big priorities was to start this company in Phoenix,” Darzi said. “It was important to me to kind of move back and try to help build this scientific community in Arizona.”

When he learned that Wexford Science & Technology planned to build the center, he said it felt like “total serendipity,” and jumped on the chance to move into the building. It offered him a chance to be in a new science and technology hub in Arizona, a place where he can walk down the hall and network with other scientists and entrepreneurs.

He might bump into Stephen Johnston, the founding CEO of a cancer research company called Calviri, which is working to develop better screening tests to detect cancer and create a vaccine that prevents it.

The company is currently testing its cancer prevention vaccine in dogs but hopes to move to human trials in the future, according to Johnston. The company is also planning to run a study this summer in humans to evaluate its screening tool for breast cancer.

To conduct the studies and develop the cancer prevention vaccine further, Johnston said the company needed pre-built, move-in-ready lab space.

“When we started looking for housing to house Calviri, we ended up looking all over the valley and there was basically zero, absolutely zero space that had already been built out,” Johnston said.

Then he found the Wexford Science & Technology building, which will rent out fully built lab space to companies like his — a service he said is critical.

“If the Phoenix area really wants to be a biotech center, it needs to have pre-built lab space that’s rentable or leasable,” he said.

Like Darzi, Johnston is hoping to bump into other researchers inside the building and plans to take advantage of the fact that ASU researchers and students will be working in the building as well. The company has already hired several ASU students for the summer and plans to eventually double its current number of employees from 15 to 30.

This could help provide job opportunities in Phoenix to new ASU graduates.

“If you graduate from one of our colleges… I mean, where do you go? And I think that’s one of the goals: to keep some of the people here,” said Frank LoVecchio, ASU’s medical director of clinical translation science.

In addition to helping improve job and learning opportunities for ASU students, LoVecchio said the new center, complete with exam rooms, research laboratories and an exercise laboratory, gives ASU researchers a place to conduct clinical trials and do more health care research.

This was one of the factors that persuaded Shu Wang, ASU nutrition professor at the College of Health Solutions, to take a job with ASU and leave her old job at Texas Tech. Wang said the Wexford building had the lab space she needed to continue her research.

That research focuses on the potential of bioactive compounds, which are substances that have the ability to influence biological processes and may promote good health by influencing things like metabolism or inflammation in the body. For example, Wang said, substances in green tea can help reduce inflammation and carry antioxidant properties.

Wang aims to improve these substances by making their effects stronger and more beneficial for the body. Then she wants to deliver the substances directly to a patient to help treat or manage diseases like diabetes and obesity.

“I’m so excited to be here at this building,” Wang said. “We have open lab space so that we can do all our basic science studies … And the second floor has a clinical area so that in the future we can test our product and our approach in human subjects.”

The new space could also help ASU researchers win more grants for their research, according to Stavros Kavouras, ASU assistant dean of graduate education and nutrition professor. Kavouras directs the Hydration Science Lab, where he studies the effects of water intake on health.

When researchers apply for grant money, one factor they need to describe in their applications is their work environment, Kavouras said, so a better research environment will help applications score better and be more likely to earn grant money.

He plans to conduct his own tests around water intake, noting that over half of children and adults are not getting enough water.

“The infrastructure will really facilitate us to perform large-scale clinical trials, which will leverage better funding for the university,” Kavouras said.

The building is located at 850 N. 5th St. Around it, more land is slotted for development and additional buildings could be added to help create a whole science and innovation district in downtown Phoenix, according to Wexford Science & Technology.