By Matt Ellsworth
Building on a trio of research core competencies—infectious diseases, environmental and ecological systems, and muscle physiology—plus the presence of medical-device company W.L. Gore, northern Arizona can fulfill a vision where the biosciences sector helps to create better-paying jobs, nurture new companies, and improve residents’ wellbeing.
That assessment was presented in “Growing Northern Arizona’s Bioscience Sector: A Regional Roadmap,” by the Battelle Technology Partnership Practice, a research consultant. Walter Plosila, vice president, unveiled the roadmap Oct. 16 at a gathering in Flagstaff that included the Northern Arizona Roadmap Steering Committee and representatives from several educational, business, and government interests.
Plosila’s findings and recommendations emerged from a far-reaching collection and analysis of data and interviews with academic, research, business, and civic leaders throughout northern Arizona. The Regional Roadmap’s launch follows and builds upon the release in 2002 of Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap, which provided a framework for many of the statewide efforts now underway to catapult the state into leadership in the biosciences.
Plosila stated in his presentation of the Roadmap that northern Arizona was well-positioned to establish a competitive advantage within the bioscience sector by expanding upon its existing strengths. Citing the region’s research excellence in infectious diseases, environmental and ecological systems, and muscle physiology, he recommended two technology platforms—diagnostic technology and environmental technology—that could leverage those core competencies into future growth in the bioscience sector.
“We are already laying the groundwork for success,” said Joe Donaldson, Flagstaff mayor and co-chair of the Northern Arizona Roadmap Steering Committee. He cited several infrastructure investments in the region, such as the Science and Technology Park in Flagstaff and the Tech Park at Embry Riddle University in Prescott.
One of northern Arizona’s greatest current assets in the biosciences, Plosila said, is Flagstaff’s largest private employer, W.L. Gore. The company’s Flagstaff facility, which focuses on medical products, is the prime reason that Flagstaff has twice the national average of per-capita specialization in the biosciences, and nearly eight times the national average of specialization in medical devices. Further, most of Flagstaff’s 19.5 percent growth in bioscience employment between 2001 and 2005 can be attributed to hiring at Gore. Plosila suggested that given Gore’s presence, northern Arizona would do well to encourage complementary economic development, such as supporting the establishment of medical-device firms that function as Gore’s supply-chain partners.
A second existing asset in northern Arizona is the research base established by such institutions as Northern Arizona University, TGen North, and the U.S. Geological Survey. While bringing in just a fraction of the research funding of more populous regions, the contributions of those institutions have helped northern Arizona outpace national averages in terms of research growth; for example, NAU’s grants from the National Institutes of Health have grown at a rate of 20 percent annually between 2001 and 2005, twice the national average among research universities. Looking forward, those institutions’ innovations have the potential to spin off new bioscience companies.
Such assets, coupled with effective workforce development by Coconino, Yavapai, and Gila Community Colleges, close proximity to Phoenix, and northern Arizona’s attractive quality of life, give the region great potential in the biosciences. And considering the premium salaries that bioscience jobs garner—topping $45,000 in the region, compared to an overall private-sector average of $27,000—the bioscience sector could emerge as a broader economic engine.
Nevertheless, to realize its potential in the biosciences sector, Plosila said that northern Arizona must confront important challenges, including a dearth of venture-capital investors and a still-nascent practice of commercializing university research in the biosciences. Perhaps the greatest challenge is the region’s high cost of housing and an associated shortage of workers. Solving that challenge will require creative solutions that involve consensus-building among a range of public and private constituencies.
One way to address the shortage of qualified workers for the bioscience sector, Plosila noted, is to build up the local talent pool. A chief task will be for the K-12 school system to establish a more robust STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum, which will boost student interest in and capacity to pursue careers in the biosciences. Likewise, industry and educational institutions need to augment opportunities for internships, co-op agreements, and part-time employment, so that once students graduate from high school or college, they will be qualified to assume positions in companies within the region.
“We have some immediate work priorities,” Donaldson said. “We need to begin working, together, on those now, for the future of our community.”
For more information:
“Battelle gives direction to northern Arizona bioscience roadmap,” Inside NAU, 10/17/2007