Regional ‘Roadmap’ events spotlight bioscience progress

January 23, 2009

By Flinn Foundation

According to most measures, Arizona is outpacing its peers nationwide in growing its biosciences sector, and its advances are occurring throughout the state, in major cities as well as smaller towns like Holbrook and Oro Valley.

That was the encouraging message that bioscience professionals, economic-development experts, and community leaders received this week at a trio of events designed to unveil the newest findings on Arizona’s push to develop a leading bioscience sector.

Each event–presented in Flagstaff, Phoenix, and Tucson–included a presentation by Walt Plosila, senior advisor to the Battelle Technology Partnership Practice, of the state’s progress to date on enacting the recommendations of Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap, which was released in 2002. A complementary presentation was made by Bob Eaton, president and CEO of the Arizona BioIndustry Association (AZBio), who provided an overview of recent industry developments and an assessment of future opportunities.

“Arizona has one of the nation’s fastest-growing bioscience industries,” Dr. Plosila said. “It’s not a major bioscience destination yet—that will require several more years—but Arizona has gained a national reputation as an emerging bioscience center.”

While Arizona faces some persistent challenges, most prominently a dearth of venture-capital funding for startup companies, as well as the local complications wrought by the global economic crisis, many of the objective figures for the past year are positive.

The most-recent data show that since 2002, Arizona has generated bioscience jobs almost three times faster than the nation as a whole and has added new bioscience establishments twice as rapidly. Grant funding from the National Institutes of Health has increased at twice the rate of the top-10 grant-winning states, and the growth in university research-and-development spending has outpaced the top-10 states by 6 percent. Among the Roadmap’s 19 recommended actions, Dr. Plosila reported, 17 have now shown progress.

The Roadmap event in Phoenix, held at the Arizona Science Center, drew an audience of around 200 individuals, in part for a third speaker who joined Eaton and Dr. Plosila: Lee Hartwell, president and director of the Seattle-based Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, and executive-committee chair of the Arizona-based Partnership for Personalized Medicine. The Partnership, a collaboration involving Hartwell, the Translational Genomics Research Institute, and the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, is applying cutting-edge technology in molecular diagnostics to improve medical science.

At the Roadmap events in Flagstaff and Tucson, presenters noted some of the achievements that individual institutions and firms have recorded over the past year, both at powerhouse research-and-development engines and at brand-new startups not yet in the limelight. Both cities are at the heart of two regional Roadmap plans specifically tailored to address the characteristics and needs of northern and southern Arizona.

Northern Arizona

In northern Arizona, the biosciences’ most-visible economic driver remains W. L. Gore & Associates Inc., the state’s oldest bioscience firm. Gore’s presence, Dr. Plosila noted, has made the Flagstaff metropolitan area a hot spot for medical-device development, with employment in that subsector of the biosciences 10 times more concentrated in Flagstaff than in the nation as a whole. Since 2002, employment in that subsector has grown 72 percent.

But strong growth has also been seen in the hospitals subsector, which since 2002 has jumped 30 percent in terms of employment. And other subsectors are also represented, with some young firms showing great promise.

Tom Rainey, president and CEO of the Northern Arizona Center for Emerging Technologies (NACET), a new high-technology business incubator, said at the Roadmap event that over the past year NACET clients have raised $21 million in venture-capital funding and have created 50 new jobs.

Algae Bioscience Corp., a NACET client with a facility in Holbrook, is pursuing financial backing now for production ramp-up; once it has that funding, it will begin producing its first algae-based neutraceutical product. Long-term, the firm intends to concentrate on research and development of other algae-based products, from biofuels to vaccines, supporting its operations by licensing the technology for those products to other firms.

Another NACET client, SenesTech Inc., which is led on the research front by several Northern Arizona University scientists, is currently engaged in testing an environmentally friendly spay chemical on rice rats in southeast Asia. At the Roadmap event, President and CEO Everett Hale said that his company, which is also developing a non-surgical spay chemical for veterinary use, is growing rapidly–it has nearly outgrown its office and laboratory space at NACET’s facility on McMillan Mesa in Flagstaff.

Emerging firms in the coming years are likely to come from the commercialization partnership between NACET and NAU, said Rainey and Laura Huenneke, NAU’s vice president for research. NAU recently concluded its partnership with Arizona Technology Enterprises, the primary technology-transfer entity for Arizona State University, striking a deal with NACET, which now manages NAU Ventures, the technology-transfer and commercialization program for NAU.

“We asked NACET to go out on a limb,” Dr. Huenneke said at the Roadmap event. The two institutions developed a cooperative agreement that allows “a physical presence on the NAU campus for NACET staff, who provide tremendous advice and guidance for our faculty. That guidance has led to an increased interest by our faculty in filing patents and pursuing tech transfer,” she explained.

Southern Arizona

Southern Arizona has been recognized for a number of years as the state’s hub for bioscience research, in significant part due to the presence of the University of Arizona and its medical school. Recent years have seen other parts of the state grow in stature, particularly with the ramp-up of ASU’s research programs and the establishment of TGen. Still, two of Arizona’s biggest bioscience headlines in 2008 were awards received by UA: a $50 million grant—perhaps the state’s largest research grant ever—from the National Science Foundation to launch the iPlant Collaborative, and a $44 million contract from the National Institutes of Health to join the National Children’s Study.

At the very top of the list for Arizona’s bioscience industry news in 2008, though, was the purchase of Oro Valley’s Ventana Medical Systems Inc. for $3.4 billion by the Swiss biotechnology firm Roche Holding AG. As Eaton noted in his presentations at each Roadmap event, the acquisition suggested the growing standing of the region’s bioscience community. Underscoring that reputation–which now extends internationally–was Roche’s pledge to keep Ventana in southern Arizona and invest significantly to expand its operations in Oro Valley.

The completion of the Roche deal closely followed another pharmaceutical giant’s decision to expand investment in southern Arizona: sanofi-aventis U.S. Inc. announced a $40 million expansion of its Combinatorial Technology Center in Tucson. The firm’s research-and-development unit was originally established in 1990 by a quartet of UA researchers as Selectide Corp.

And over the course of 2008, Roche, sanofi-aventis, and more than a dozen other major pharmaceutical companies deepened their involvement in the Predictive Safety Testing Consortium (PSTC), a cooperative effort of industry scientists to improve the efficiency and safety of drug development. The PSTC, an initiative of the Tucson-based Critical Path Institute, broke new ground in June, when its members together submitted data on seven new drug-safety tests to both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and its European counterpart, the European Medicines Agency.

At the Roadmap event in Tucson, Dr. Plosila and Leslie Tolbert, UA vice president for research, graduate studies, and economic development, called attention to the academic and industry achievements from the past year as clear signs of southern Arizona’s bright future in the biosciences. They noted, though, the need for continuing public and private investment to keep the sector on a path toward self-sufficiency, especially during the current economic downturn. As Plosila noted, Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap outlined actions over a span of at least 10 years, and even the most rapidly emergent states have required 10-15 years of sustained funding to launch their bioscience sectors.

For more information:

Turning the Corner: 2008 Progress on Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap brochure”

Report: Bioscience growth hinges on investors,” Arizona Republic, 01/21/2009

Lack of funding could slow growth of bioscience industry,” Tucson Citizen, 01/21/2009

Report: Bioscience grows without full investment,” Arizona Daily Sun, 01/21/2009

Flinn Foundation news release