Hard-charging companies, tireless advocates win AZBio Awards

September 29, 2009

By hammersmith

One puts microbes to work consuming waste to make energy. One uses DNA analysis to reunite families separated during the Holocaust. One has mastered the art of getting everyone else working together.

That represents only some of the breadth in Arizona’s bioscience sector that was on display September 24 at the annual Arizona BioIndustry Association Awards dinner. An audience of more than 300 gathered at the Arizona Grand Resort in Tempe to celebrate award winners and finalists in six categories.

Keynote addresses at the dinner were delivered by Alan Nelson, executive director of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, and Sharon Hesterlee, senior vice president and executive director of Tucson-based MDA Venture Philanthropy.

Bioscience Company Awards

Oro Valley-based Ventana Medical Systems Inc. was named Bioscience Company of the Year. And a notable year it has been: Since it was acquired in February 2008 by the powerhouse biotech firm Roche Holding AG, Ventana has initiated a rapid expansion, aiming to increase its southern-Arizona workforce from 750 to more than 1,000 by the end of 2009. Roche has pledged to maintain Ventana’s existing corporate culture through the growth period, while building on the firm’s industry strengths.

Ventana, which first established a foothold in the medical-devices field with its automated tissue slide-staining technology for pathologists, increasingly has become recognized as a significant player in personalized medicine, developing a stable of companion diagnostics, especially in oncology, that help caregivers individualize treatments to suit patients’ phenotypes.

“I was honored to accept this award on behalf of all the 1,300-plus Ventana employees who tirelessly work to improve the lives of all patients fighting cancer, and of course also on behalf of Dr. Tom Grogan who founded Ventana over 25 years ago,” said Ventana CEO Hany Massarany.

“We are now able to leverage our position as a member of the Roche Group,” Massarany added, “along with our partnerships with local world-class scientific institutes such as the University of Arizona, BIO5, and the Critical Path Institute, as well as local and state governments and business leaders, to advance innovation in science and medicine to improve the quality of life.”

AZBio selected Applied Microarrays Inc. of Tempe as winner of the Fast Start Award, honoring the most significant firm founded since July 1, 2006. Applied Microarrays, a designer and manufacturer of custom arrays, is working to position itself as a leader for outsourced array production. Among the companies with which it holds contracts are two publicly traded firms that have outsourced their entire microarray operations.

“We are delighted to be the recipient of the Fast Start Award,” said Applied Microarrays President and CEO Alastair Malcolm. “Recent scientific advances in genomics and proteomics are creating significant opportunities for a new generation of microarray devices for disease diagnosis and treatment determination. Our technical expertise and high-capacity factory are enabling new customer partnerships for state-of-the-art devices in the fields of oncology, auto-immune and infectious diseases.”

Individual Awards

Along with the two awards AZBio presented to firms, four awards went to individuals. The Jon W. McGarity Leadership Award was won by Martin L. Shultz, vice president for government affairs at Pinnacle West Capital Corp., and since 2005 chair of the Steering Committee for Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap, a long-term plan to make the state’s bioscience sector globally competitive.

Shultz, formerly chief of staff to three Phoenix mayors, has championed a number of causes in addition to his public-affairs role at Pinnacle West, the parent company of Arizona Public Service Co. The initiatives he has helped to lead–from development of a modern and integrated transportation system, to expanded access to health care for the uninsured, to a campus of services for the homeless in Phoenix, to implementation of the Bioscience Roadmap–have shared a goal of strengthening Arizonans’ quality of life.

“This award is a reflection of the ongoing efforts of hundreds of leaders across the state who have come together under the umbrella of Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap,” Shultz said.

Some of the achievements that Roadmap partners have helped to implement include the recruitment of the Translational Genomics Research Institute to Phoenix, the establishment of the downtown Phoenix Biomedical Campus, the creation of the University of Arizona College of Medicine-in partnership with ASU, and the formation of Science Foundation Arizona.

“Recent times have been challenging for the biosciences—for all industries, in fact,” Shultz added. “In such times, it’s especially important to keep working together. Collaboration, after all, is the key ingredient that has made Arizona’s bioscience initiative a success to date.”

Also receiving recognition for advocacy on behalf of the biosciences was District 7 Rep. Nancy K. Barto of the Arizona House of Representatives, who received AZBio’s Public Service Award, honoring the elected official at the city, county, state, or federal level who has worked most diligently to enhance the business climate for bioscience firms in the state.

“Arizona is proving to be a magnet for bio-technology innovation and as the industry develops it is imperative our laws accommodate, rather than thwart this progress,” said Rep. Barto, chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee. “I am proud to work with lawmakers who recognize our role and act upon it.”

AZBio lauded Rep. Barto for accomplishments including sponsorship of “important legislation to support the health care of the citizens of Arizona.”

“Enabling pharmacists to administer vaccinations to adults in time to meet the H1N1 challenge this season is one important example of this,” she said, “but there are many others that are not so visible to the public that are just as critical to saving lives.”

Bruce Rittmann, director of the Center for Environmental Biotechnology at the Biodesign Institute at ASU, won the Research Excellence Award. Dr. Rittmann’s expertise centers on the employment of communities of microbes to perform a wide range of functions, from environmental cleanup to biofuel generation.

“All of the research we do in the Center follows the theme of ‘managing microorganisms to provide services to society,” Dr. Rittmann said. “The research lets us understand the microorganisms so that we know how to manage them so that society gains needed services, while the right microorganisms flourish–the ideal ‘win-win’ situation.”

In one project, Dr. Rittmann and his colleagues are designing microbial fuel cells. As the team has modeled the fuel cell, a bacterial biofilm on the anode in the fuel cell would generate an electric current as it consumed organic matter. That organic matter could potentially be abundantly available biomass waste.

In another initiative, Dr. Rittmann’s team is drawing on the capacities of a cyanobacterium called Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803. It is photosynthetic and has an unusually high lipid content, which means that it offers the potential to use solar energy to generate biodiesel. Nicknamed “Tubes in the Desert,” the project has received significant startup funding from Science Foundation Arizona, with matching funds contributed by the energy company BP.

“These services will become more an more essential for all of human society, but they are especially important in Arizona, where we need to be especially diligent about using wisely our precious water resources and we also have a giant potential for generating renewable bio-based energy from our ample sunlight,” Dr. Rittmann said.

AZBio chose Barbara Fransway of the University of Arizona as the Bioscience Educator of the Year. Fransway, the outreach coordinator and a research specialist at Arizona Research Laboratories, maintains several roles, among them running teacher-training workshops and a summer Forensics Camp for teenagers, managing Y-chromosome genealogical DNA testing for the firm Family Tree DNA and for public participants in National Geographic Society’s Geographic Project.

The most well-publicized project Fransway participates in is the DNA Shoah (Holocaust) Project, an independent initiative to build a DNA database of Holocaust survivors. UA’s Genomic Analysis and Technology Core facility provides the DNA analysis for the project. Fransway, the laboratory supervisor for the project, regularly works with the public to better understand–and participate in–its efforts.

“Arizona Research Laboratories has allowed me to be both a scientist and an educator,” Fransway said. “One of our greatest challenges and successes is to communicate what we do in the lab to learners of all levels.  In this effort, we are contributing to the education of the next generation of scientists.”

Other AZBio Awards finalists included:

  • Bioscience Company of the Year Award: Dedicated Clinical Research Inc., Litchfield Park; SenesTech Inc., Flagstaff;
  • Fast Start Award: bioVidria Inc., Tucson; Kemeta Inc., Mesa;
  • Jon W. McGarity Leadership Award: Michael Berens, director, Cancer & Cell Biology Division, TGen; Ron King, president & chief scientific officer, Catapult Bio;
  • Public Service Award: Cecil P. Ash, District 18, Arizona House of Representatives; Phil Gordon, Mayor, City of Phoenix;
  • Research Excellence Award: Matthew J. Huentelman, investigator, Neurogenomics Division, TGen; Donna Wolk, Director, Infectious Disease Research Core, BIO5 Institute, UA;
  • Bioscience Educator of the Year Award: Stacey Forsyth, Outreach Director, BIO5 Institute, UA; Vincent Pizziconi, associate professor, Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, ASU.

For more information:

AZBio Announces Recipients of 2009 Awards,” AZ Bio News Release, 09/29/2009