At trade show, Arizona competes for a piece of the biotech cake

June 20, 2008

By hammersmith

[Source: Ken Alltucker, The Arizona Republic] – The state of Georgia hosted biotech executives from across the globe aboard a decommissioned aircraft carrier. Pennsylvania raffled away a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. And Minnesota handed out a $500 shopping spree at the Mall of America.

Economic-development representatives from 31 states, including Arizona, and more than two dozen foreign nations courted biotechnology executives and investors this week in San Diego at the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s annual convention.

They are desperate to woo biotech companies and research, which they see as an environmentally friendly industry that offers high-wage jobs, innovation and improved health care.

The states offered trips, trinkets and lots of cash to capture the industry’s attention.

One day after Massachusetts Gov. Deval Partick signed a $1 billion biotech bill, Maryland proposed its own $1.1 billion funding plan to sprinkle investments across that state’s biotech sector.

Not to be outdone, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of a dozen or so governors at the convention, chatted up his state’s $3 billion stem-cell research initiative and pitched California as a business destination.

“Let’s face it, California is the biotech capital of the world,” Schwarzenegger said during a luncheon speech. “If you are a biotech scientist, or an entrepreneur or an investor, California is one of the best places to set up shop.”

Arizona’s contingent of public and private bioscience interests wasn’t far behind when it came to chatting up the state’s burgeoning biotech efforts.

Representatives from the University of Arizona’s Bio5 Institute, Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, Northern Arizona University, the Flinn Foundation and others were on hand to promote the Grand Canyon State.

Arizona made no splashy announcement of any new funding deal at the conference.

But the state Department of Commerce issued a news release Wednesday listing some of Arizona’s bio-related accomplishments.

Walt Plosila, a consultant who helped draft the state’s bioscience road map, said Arizona’s planned approach to grow its research base is the smartest way to expand its biotech efforts.

“The goal is not to be good at everything,” said Plosila, senior adviser to Cleveland-based Technology Partnership Practice. “It’s not to try to be like Massachusetts or Silicon Valley. They are so far ahead, and they have such a deep base – you can’t do that.”

Arizona has notched some positive momentum in recent years, Plosila said, noting the state ranked No. 27 among all states in federal National Institutes of Health grants and No. 20 in bioscience venture-capital investment during the 2007 fiscal year.

A state-funded measure helped build new state-of-the-art research labs in Tucson and Tempe. And the Translational Genomics Research Institute has expanded the state’s molecular know-how.

Even though Arizona has made strides in the area of research funding, the state still has not spawned a strong cluster of privately owned biotech companies, he added. “Arizona is not yet at a critical mass of companies,” Plosila said.

That is true of many states across the United States.

But those states work hard to woo companies at the annual biotechnology industry show.

“This has evolved over the years from being an industry show to an economic-development show,” said Curt Bilby, chief executive officer of the Austin-based biotech company Terapio. “Everybody is trying to become the next biotech cluster.”

Contest among states

Louisiana’s pavilion featured an amateur ventriloquist handling a stuffed ostrich. A pavilion for Nebraska offered biotech executives a drawing for Omaha steaks.

Kansas took on a sporting theme, with the state’s biotech organization, called the Kansas Bio Authority, circulated a pamphlet featuring a picture of the state’s college-basketball championship aftermath. The message: “Kansas: Home of Champions.”

Economic development representatives from Georgia acknowledged that competition among the states remains tough.

“You look at Boston, San Diego and the Silicon Valley – they are the leaders,” said Michael Starling, a senior project manager with the DeKalb County Office of Economic Development in suburban Atlanta. “Everybody else is reaching for that second rung.”

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