Bioindustry chairman predicts bullish biotech future for AZ

April 7, 2005

By hammersmith

When Jon McGarity–veteran pharmaceutical executive, business consultant, and current chairman of the growing Arizona Bioindustry Association–was of that age when children begin to think about what they will be when they grow up, he decided instead that he “wasn’t going to.”

“For some reason, when my dad turned 48, I remember thinking, ‘Man, is he old,'” McGarity says, chuckling. But he holds that the advances in health care science and technology since then have not only prolonged life for many around the world, but also improved their quality of life.

“Look, you start aging from the day your born,” McGarity says. “But it’s how you age.” And in his view, biotechnology is in the business of improving that “how.”

As a boy growing up in Norwich, a town of 7,000 in upstate New York, Jon McGarity dreamed of becoming a doctor. But the way he tells it, he did not have much time to daydream, since he was helping his parents and older brother run the family ice-cream and sandwich shop from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. six days a week. That experience, McGarity says, was the origin of the work ethic to which he attributes much of his subsequent success in the business community, as well as in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries.

And when he finished a pre-med degree at State University of New York, Albany, and needed to earn the money for medical school, it was that same work ethic that landed him a job as a sales representative at Novartis (then Sandoz) Pharmaceutical.

Since leaving Sandoz, McGarity has worked for some of the top international pharmaceutical powerhouses, including GlaxoSmithKline, Glaxo Dermatology, and Bristol-Myers Squibb. He has also served as acting president/chief executive officer for three biotech startup companies, including Pharmaceutical Marketing Services, which built the fist prescription database for information and marketing purposes in the U.S. pharmaceutical industry.

After founding EthiX Associates, a healthcare- and biotech-consulting firm that he started in Scottsdale in 1996, McGarity was ready for a new challenge. He found it in 2002, in the form of the Arizona Bioindustry Association, a not-for-profit trade association with organizational and financial deficits. Having helped form a similar trade association in Alabama, McGarity took the reins of the ABA and revamped, restructured, and reinvented the state chapter of the national Biotechnology Industry Organization. Today, the ABA boasts more than 200 members and hosts a Bio Expo that is one of the largest in the Southwest. This year the ABA, in conjunction with the Bio Expo, hosted an inaugural bioindustry awards dinner. %pagebreak%

McGarity runs the ABA on a few strong guiding principles. “It’s for the industry, so we want to make it by the industry,” he says. That means expanding and transitioning the 15-member board; he hopes to have half the board made up of operating biotech executives within three years.

Another one of his principles for the ABA is financial self-sufficiency. All ABA revenue comes from membership dues and events and, for now, the organization is completely staffed by volunteers. This differs from similar councils and associations that rely on corporate sponsors for partial revenue.

“Now we’re at a point developmentally where I think we can start looking to sponsorships to support growth,” said McGarity. “I didn’t feel like we can ask anyone for money until we can prove we can financially stand on our own two feet, and we’ve proved that now.”

In a field where time is money, why do McGarity and his fellow board members give so much of theirs to the association? The ABA chairman says it is partly because they are optimistic about Arizona’s fledgling bioscience prospects.

“Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that we all have day jobs,” he says.

McGarity points to the Critical Path to Accelerate Therapies Institute (C-Path) being planned for Tucson as a bright star in Arizona’s bioscience future. Dr. Ray Woosley, who left his post as the UA vice president for health sciences to take the job, captains C-Path–a partnership between University of Arizona, the Food and Drug Administration, and SRI (formerly the Stanford Research Institute). McGarity agrees with Woosley’s premise that the drug-development process is broken and in dire need of repair.

“You’re rolling big marbles bringing a drug to market,” McGarity says, adding that the recent public outcry over Vioxx safety issues and the subsequent introduction of a new independent safety panel merely illustrate the maxim by which the FDA tends to operate. “They’re darned if they do, darned if they don’t.” But McGarity believes that C-Path is a step in the right direction.

Another integral part of Arizona’s potential success in the field, he says, is Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap, which McGarity calls a “viable, living document” undergoing constant change and evolution.

“It really provides a defined pathway in what needs to be done,” he adds.

According to McGarity, there are currently 39 states and urban regions that, like Arizona, are vying to build a bioscience economy. With the volume of competition Arizona faces, why is McGarity so confident the Grand Canyon State stands a chance?

“We’re talking to each other and we’re knocking down fences,” he replies. “It’s really about Arizona, and that’s strong stuff.”