Bio-Southwest Conference looks at building biotech bridges
Bio-Southwest Conference looks at building biotech bridges
By Philip S. Moore, Inside Tucson Business
Starting April 3 with a public exhibition and ending on April 5 with a day-long look at Tucson’s stem cell research at Cord Blood Registry, BioSouthwest 2006 will be exploring the possibilities open to bio-science research and bio-science business development in Southern Arizona.
Sponsored by the Bio-Industry Organization of Southern Arizona (BIO-SA), the conference at the Doubletree Hotel at Reid Park, 445 S. Alvernon Way, will be discussing the expansion of the state’s bioindustry business and the young and maturing operations that are leading the growth, including W.L. Gore in Flagstaff, drug maker Covance in Chandler, Abbott laboratories in Casa Grande, Tucson’s Ventana Medical Systems, Sanofi-Aventis and SynCardia, maker of the CardioWest totally artificial heart system.
Keynote speaker for the Tucson conference will be venture capitalist G. Steven Burrill of the investment firm Burrill & Company in San Francisco. Another featured speaker is Vicki Chandler, director of the University of Arizona’s BIO5 Institute, who will be discussing the latest activities for the institute.
For further information or registration, contact Dr. David Thorpe at (520) 544-5842.
According to Thorpe, BIO-SA chairman and BioSouthwest product manager, “The main thing we’re looking to do is bridge the divide between science and business.“
He said,“Scientists and business people usually don’t get much opportunity to interact, but this will allow everyone to browse a little bit and discuss areas of mutual interest.“
This type of cooperation has been a long time coming, Thorpe said. For at least 25 years, biotechnology has been a leading arena of scientific research,“but scientific discovery is one thing and commercialization is a whole other thing. It takes considerable dedication and commitment to establish a hub, which is why Tucson is still far from being a bioscience hub.“
While Thorpe said,“You can still count the number of local biotechnology companies on one hand,“ changes is coming. “The challenges are great, but this is a desert and we’re a scrappy lot.“
He notes the example of his company, formerly a start-up named Selectide and now the Combinatorial Technologies Center for the French pharmaceutical maker Sanofi-Aventis.“We started here and continue to be here and expectations are we’ll be growing here. In the grand scheme of budgets for a major corporation this a midsized operation, but it continues to be located in Tucson because it serves Sanofi-Aventis needs.“
As for the future, Thorpe said the greatest opportunities are with stem cells, especially“those harvested and stored by Cord Blood Registry from what used to be medical waste. The potential there is almost unlimited.“
Aside from shortages in capital and the hesitation of scientists and entrepreneurs to get together, he said the greatest ongoing burden for the bio-technology industry is public expectations.“There’s always hype associated with any new thing. When you look at the dot-com rhetoric of a few years ago, you’d ask what happened? However, the fact is that we now depend on the Internet. It’s the same thing with bio-science. People get over-excited but there’s still definite value in what’s being developed which will become even more apparent as time goes on.“
While there’s a large amount of potential value in bio-science and other advanced technology research, the Goldwater Institute is warning that the hype may be more destructive than useful in developing it. In the institute’s latest report, it wrote that government support is more likely to prevent successful commercialization than encourage it.
“Statewide, Arizona biotech employment rose 11.8 percent from 2000 to 2004, while the number of biotech firms went from 578 to 616 over that same time period,“ Institute Chairman and physician Tom Patterson wrote. “That may sound promising, but during that time period biotech employment remained stuck at 3 percent of Arizona’s total jobs.“
Patterson said the current state policy means 97 percent of the state’s employment is subsidizing 3 percent, “while biotech-related industries have been mostly unprofitable.“
Subsidies, mostly in the form of federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer Research (STTR) grants, as well as related state support, exacerbate the trend by“generating safe startups that appeal to bureaucrats, not market demand.“
NP Photonics Chief Executive Officer Patrick Edsell has the same concern. While not directly connected to biotechnology, he said the chase for grants distorts the business planning and development model, making it harder for companies to succeed.
Edsell said,“Government isn’t very good at picking what technology should be commercialized. The market, on the other hand, is ruthlessly efficient. It keeps you from wasting time and money on things that are non-starters.“
There’s also a danger of confusing the number of technology companies with their value to the economy. “I’ve been told there are about 150 companies doing optics research in the Tucson area, but I can’t find them,“ he said. “Mostly, I think these companies are three or four guys in a small lab or garage getting an SBIR or STTR grant here and there.“
That’s the problem with the way technology transfer is measured. “They aren’t really making much of a difference and there’s little chance of them creating a successful company, but they count as a start-up,“ Edsell said.
“I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but what approach you take should be determined by what you hope to achieve. If you want a thriving high tech economy, you need to do more than just encourage a lot of start-ups. You need a higher success rate.“
Contact Philip S. Moore email@example.com or at (520) 295-4238.