UA economic development chief pushes southern Ariz. biosciences forward

December 17, 2007

By hammersmith

When Robert Shelton assumed the presidency of the University of Arizona in 2006, he pledged to pursue “a new covenant between the UA and the state of Arizona,” in essence a re-articulation of how the university should serve its community.

In practice, Dr. Shelton’s assurance in his inaugural address has meant an even more crucial and prominent role for one of UA’s longtime administrators—and one of Southern Arizona’s most consistent champions of the biosciences—Bruce Wright. As UA’s associate vice president for economic development, Wright holds substantial responsibility for ensuring that the university upholds its historic mission as Arizona’s only land-grant institution.

The 1862 Congressional act granting every state federal land to use for the creation of a college also stipulated that such a college must concentrate on providing for the practical education of its state’s citizenry; a 1914 addendum further required that land-grant institutions provide “cooperative extension,” the delivery of research-based knowledge directly to the population.

Because of that mandate, Wright says, UA “has been involved in economic development since the beginning.” Over time, the university became the training ground not only for citizens learning about agriculture and mining, but also for those pursuing other professions recognized as vital to the state’s functioning, such as medicine and law.

“The challenge now,” Wright says, “is to redefine what the land-grant mandate means in the 21st century. We’re trying to redefine the way we apply that culture of assistance to the community.”

A core means for the UA to engage its community is the Office of Economic Development (OED), which Wright oversees. The OED has a broad purview, facilitating the university’s interaction with its community on several fronts. It is charged with stimulating and supporting development at all levels—local, state, regional, and international. To that end, it conducts policy research on behalf of government, business, and community stakeholders; through its Global Advantage program, it works to build an international network of cities and regions focused on mutually beneficial technological development; and it provides tools and connections for UA researchers to turn their discoveries into marketable products and services.

Perhaps the most visible project of the OED that Wright leads is the UA Science and Technology Park. Launched in 1994 in southeast Tucson on 1,345 acres purchased from IBM, the Tech Park has grown from housing two tenants and 1,200 employees to 27 tenants and 7,500 employees occupying the Park’s 345 acres of developed property. Tenants include four Fortune 500 companies—Citigroup, General Dynamics, IBM, and Raytheon—and many smaller high-technology companies, such as Sion Power and NP Photonics. Altogether, the Tech Park yields an annual economic impact of roughly $2 billion, making it one of the nation’s 10 largest research parks.

Wright says that the park was born from the conviction of UA administrators that “we needed to do more to move research out of the lab and into the marketplace.” From the beginning, it was Wright’s aim that a variety of potential Tech Park tenants—both start-up firms and mature companies—would be attracted by the park’s technologically advanced infrastructure and by the proximity to other innovative tenants and to UA researchers.

And Wright has observed that strengthening the university’s capacity for technology transfer is necessary not only to fulfill its land-grant mission, but also to meet the expectations of students and faculty. “To attract the best students and faculty, we have to be engaged in tech commercialization,” he says. “They expect that, and are seeking that when they come here.”

Along with enabling technology transfer and commercialization, Wright says that relationships the OED builds with Tech Park tenants help it meet the growing demand for industry internships for UA students, going a long way toward fulfilling the land-grant call for relevant, practical education: As student interns get their first tastes of working for high-tech firms, they learn hands-on analytical skills, develop better problem-solving strategies, and acquire critical experience functioning as a member of a team.

A Career Commitment to Regional Development

Wright studied political science as an undergraduate and graduate student, then worked as a management analyst for the City of Tucson before joining the staff of District 2 Representative Morris Udall in 1979. Wright served as Udall’s chief of staff from 1981-85 before returning to Tucson to take on economic development and community affairs responsibilities at UA.

Wright says that he has always had an interest in regional economic development, and contends that technological innovation—the sort that can be jump-started by a university research enterprise engaged with industry—holds the potential to solve many of the problems the world faces today, and is imperative to the nation’s economic health.

“My sense of civic responsibility says that we need to do this. I don’t think we have a choice,” he says. “Technology is already driving our economy, the world is changing fundamentally, and we have to understand how we’ll maintain the strength of our economy in the face of other nations’ advances.”

One of Wright’s strategies to support technology-based economic development is business incubation. In addition to serving as the Tech Park’s chief operating officer, Wright is the founder and president of the Arizona Center for Innovation, a high-tech business incubator housed at the Tech Park. At any one time, four to six firms are participating in the Innovation’s Center’s regimented, 2-3 year business-development program, using the Innovation Center’s facilities and receiving support and guidance toward self-sufficiency, including assistance securing financing for their operations. Companies the Innovation Center serves represent six areas—aerospace, advanced composites and materials, information technology, environmental technology, life sciences, and optics/photonics—and most have emerged from the discoveries of UA researchers.

Another strategy Wright is pursuing is to broaden the scope of development at the Tech Park. Already, the Park houses more than just high-tech companies; it includes the University of Arizona South, where students can work toward bachelor degrees in immediate proximity to potential employers, as well as Vail High, a 150-student comprehensive high school emphasizing science, technology, engineering, math, and business, with a strong school-to-work program matching students with Tech Park tenant employers.

Next up, if current plans remain on track, will be commercial and residential development at and adjacent to the Tech Park. Serving both Tech Park tenants and the rapidly growing surrounding area could be a hotel, a major retail presence, and as many as 600 new homes.

Paving the way for the residential construction—and perhaps a significant portion of the retail development—is a complicated land swap, several years in the making, that UA completed with KB Homes in August. UA gave KB Homes 124 acres of Tech Park property in exchange for 65 more valuable acres of land at 36th Street and Kino Parkway. The newly acquired property will be the site for a second UA research park, the Arizona Bioscience Park.

Wright’s leadership of such a multifaceted economic development plan has regularly put him in the spotlight; that leadership also led the national Association of University Research Parks to honor him in October with its Career Achievement Award.

The Bioscience Future of Economic Development

The Arizona Bioscience Park, which will initially feature some 660,000 square feet of lab, office, and hotel and conference space, will function like the Tech Park in terms of its role as a conduit for technology transfer. The difference, Wright says, will be the specially tailored infrastructure that the Bioscience Park will offer life-science companies—equipment and facilities like wet labs and vivaria that are in short supply as Southern Arizona seeks to expand its bioscience sector.

The regional and broader statewide drives to strengthen the biosciences match well Wright’s technology-focused economic development objectives, and he says he has been heartened by the support the state has provided to date for infrastructure and research. He cites in particular the passage of Proposition 301 in 2000, which increased the sales tax 0.6 percent to fund educational priorities, including an estimated $1 billion over 20 years for research at the state’s universities. “That is proof to me that the people of Arizona support this effort,” he says.

Wright finds further evidence of support for Arizona’s bioscience undertakings in the local efforts of cities like Scottsdale, with its support of ASU’s SkySong development, and Phoenix, with its development of the downtown biomedical campus. Receiving Tucson City Council approval for aspects of the UA-KB Homes land swap was an important affirmation. “We hope we’ll keep getting that kind of support from the City of Tucson,” Wright says.

It will be a challenge to maintain public and private contributions in support of the biosciences beyond Arizona’s initial commitments of the past several years, Wright says. But continuing to invest, especially in technology commercialization, is exactly what must be done if the Tucson-Phoenix-Flagstaff corridor is to join what he describes as the 12-15 bioscience hubs recognized nationwide for their excellence.

“For now, Arizona is still behind the curve,” Wright says. “Over the last eight to 10 years, a recognition has emerged that development of a biotech industry in Arizona won’t happen by itself. Based on our research strengths, we believe we can play—but we need to be aggressive and proactive, making targeted, smart investments.”

In part, catching up will involve publicizing the breadth and depth that Arizona has already achieved in the bioscience industry. “There are actually many firms—something like 120—in the Tucson area,” Wright says, “and important things are happening across the region. We have to market that reality, that a critical mass is forming. It’s what will give workers and investors confidence that there is a future for them in this region.”

Simultaneously, the state must concentrate on strategically building around those elements of its research base that truly are unique and have the potential to revolutionize the industry. Wright points to two such institutions based in Tucson, BIO5 and the Critical Path Institute, both of which are quickly establishing national reputations. “BIO5 is far ahead of the curve in terms of interdisciplinary research,” he asserts. “C-Path may be the organization that reforms the drug approval process in this nation. And if so, the primary place where that’s happening will become a draw for the drug-development industry. They’ll need to come to Tucson.”

Recognizing that the state probably cannot achieve excellence in all segments of the bioscience industry is crucial to minimizing risks, he says. One way or another, though, risks must still be taken. That holds true even when it’s a difficult sell—as will likely be the case in the coming year, as the state Legislature and the governor confront an anticipated budget shortfall approaching $1 billion.

Wright cites the prolific growth of the Tech Park over the past dozen years as an example of what can happen when leaders are willing to make an investment. “UA took a risk when it paid several hundred thousand dollars for the property. Today it produces $500 million a year in wages,” he says.

“What’s the alternative to making an investment?” Wright asks. “Will we not be a leader?”

For more information:

UA Office of Economic Development (OED)

Association of University Research Parks (AURP)