In the spring of 2005, with the current vision of the downtown Phoenix Biomedical Campus just taking shape, a small, pioneering biotech company set up shop in downtown Phoenix. That firm, Ribomed Biotechnologies, is now on its way out of Arizona. Its story illustrates the dynamic give and take in the state’s emerging bioscience industry.
Ribomed, a privately held company, was founded in 1999 in Phoenix by Michelle Hanna, a biochemist who previously held a tenured professorship at the University of Oklahoma. As the company’s president and CEO, Dr. Hanna has led Ribomed’s development of several biomedical diagnostic tools, most notably its patented Abscription molecular detection technology, which provides a means to identify RNA, DNA, and proteins.
The versatile diagnostic capabilities of Ribomed’s technology has enabled Dr. Hanna to secure several cancer and biodefense research and development grants, including one, worth nearly $4 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), to devise, via a contract with Northrop Grumman Corp., a handheld device that can detect RNA viruses and protein toxins. Another key grant, from the Department of Homeland Security, applies Ribomed’s technology to detection of pathogens in the food supply.
In concert with her research undertakings, Dr. Hanna has been a key leader in efforts to build up Arizona’s bioscience infrastructure. She has served on Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap Steering Committee and on the Board of Directors of the Arizona Technology Council. And Ribomed’s downtown facility has doubled as home to the Phoenix Biotechnology Accelerator, which leases lab space to other biotech startup companies.
Dr. Hanna envisioned Ribomed as the first of many private bioscience companies that would open their doors in downtown Phoenix to take advantage of research synergies with other new arrivals, like the nonprofit Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix, in partnership with Arizona State University.
That vision now appears likely to be realized, but with a twist: Dr. Hanna has sold the property that Ribomed occupies, at Van Buren and Seventh streets, to the Plaza Companies, a Peoria-based developer, which is moving forward with plans to construct a 270,000-square-foot facility for biomedical and research companies.
Dr. Hanna has announced that Ribomed will not be one of the facility’s new tenants. According to the Business Journal of Phoenix, Dr. Hanna told associates that she will be moving her company, which currently employs 16 people, including eight Ph.D. researchers, to San Diego.
“It wasn’t expected and it’s unfortunate,” said Rick Naimark, Deputy City Manager for the City of Phoenix. “But, hopefully, when the Plaza building is finished, she might come back.”
Sharon Harper, President and CEO of the Plaza Cos., concurred, noting the contributions that Ribomed and Dr. Hanna have made towards establishing downtown Phoenix as a bioscience hub. “She would certainly be welcome to return,” Harper said, adding that Dr. Hanna has indicated Ribomed will revisit that opportunity when the new building opens in two years.
Ribomed staff would not comment on the company’s departure beyond confirming that it is imminent.
Naimark said that it is also important to look at the Ribomed move from a broad perspective. The Plaza Cos. facility appears likely to enable the arrival of multiple successor firms, and even if Hanna does not return, Arizona enterprises may be able to continue collaborating with companies like Ribomed. “Phoenix and Southern California are so close now that there are lots of opportunities for interactivity,” he said.
For more information:
“Phoenix in talks for downtown biotech lab“, The Arizona Republic, 05/31/2007
“Ribomed owner says lost lab space in Phoenix prompting move to San Diego,” The Business Journal of Phoenix, 08/22/2007