Biosciences Industry: Value is in Its People
01 Jun, 2012
By Rachel Duran
It can be difficult to chart a path in bioscience development when global financial markets are in disarray. A business environment with unknowns, an increasing rate of change, and a complex regulatory environment pose challenges to the drug discovery process, where it can take 10 years to 12 years to bring a drug to the market and cost an estimated $1.2 billion.
There are certain areas of the country that appeal to bioscience and biopharma companies as they position themselves to work through the obstacles. While a location in a particular state isn’t the answer to industry-wide impediments, there are reasons companies conduct business where they do.
From Arizona to Kansas to Virginia, bioscience firms are finding advantages that assist them in growing and succeeding.
In Tucson, researchers at the University of Arizona spun out a technology and formed Selectide Corp. in 1989. The founders created a technology to thoroughly search for useful pharmacological activity or biochemical activity and look speculatively at molecules that had never been looked at before. Over the course of a year, a chemist could increase production from a few dozen to 100 new molecules to as many as 20,000 to 50,000 new molecules.
Today that startup company is the Sanofi Combinatorial Technologies Center, located in Oro Valley in the Tucson metro. The primary research is to take a concept to what could be describe as an early drug candidate. The location works in partnership with therapeutic areas of interest to Sanofi worldwide. Key partnerships are in oncology, diabetes and rare diseases. Today there are 80 researchers in the overall enterprise.
“The numbers have expanded recently with the addition of new capability with a group called the Early to Candidate department,” says Dr. Ken Wertman, vice president and site research director, Sanofi Combinatorial Technologies Center. “And another group is involved in the evaluation of drug safety, which is a new element to let the Tucson group move compounds further toward drug candidacy.”
While there has been discussion over the years of moving the operation to another location, Wertman says you can “own the technology and move the instruments, but lose the real value, which is knowledge, expertise and implementation that resides in the people.”
Adds Richard Austin, Ph.D., planning and resources manager at Sanofi Tucson: “One of the advantages of being in Arizona and not being in one of the major pharma hubs is that our employees have always maintained a high entrepreneurial spirit, which has been key to our success for all of these years.”
Another successful biosciences firm that originated from technology at the University of Arizona is Ventana Medical Systems Inc., located in Tucson, which was purchased in 2008 and 2009 by the Roche Group for $3.4 billion. Ventana creates, develops, manufactures and distributes its products from a 1,200-person campus. The company is the world leader in tissue-based diagnostics, instrumentation and tests. The company filled Roche’s need for a tissue-based diagnostics business. Roche is the No. 1 in vitro diagnostics company in the world.
Mara Aspinall, president and CEO, Ventana Medical Systems, and global head of Roche Tissue Diagnostics, says Tucson offers a thriving bioscience cluster. The company is able to recruit people to live and work in the community. Talent finds the cost of living is favorable and significantly better than the cost of living in Seattle, San Diego or San Francisco.
What’s more, Ventana has been able to double its real estate footprint; adding 40 acres to its 39-acre site inside the Innovation Park. The company has also dedicated a significant amount of space to infrastructure, labs, assembly and systems manufacturing.
“Another critical piece for us is being part of a university town and the importance of the University of Arizona and the intellectual community and health care community,” Aspinall says.
Moving to the Midwest, a thriving regional bioscience cluster focused on the animal health industry and food industries spans from Columbia, Mo., to Manhattan, Kan. In Johnson County, Kan., part of the Kansas City metro, the Kansas State University-Olathe campus features research centers and advanced degree programming. One of the goals of the campus is to provide the infrastructure to fill gaps between industry and the university’s expertise. The campus plans to expand the capabilities of its Advanced Manufacturing Institute to provide industry and scientists with space to conduct prototyping, and flexible lab space so they can work together to develop new technologies and delivery systems.
The campus receives funding from the Johnson County Education Research Triangle, which consists of initiatives for other universities as well. “We have been able to offer more than $23,000 to Johnson County educators in the animal health and food safety training curriculum so far; we have plans to award $50,000 a year to Johnson County residents moving forward,” says Dan Richardson, DVM, CEO, KSU-Olathe.
The initial 108,000-square-foot building on the campus houses labs, two of which are used by CEVA Biomune, which develops products for swine and poultry. The campus also houses the Center for Animal Health Innovation, and will house a U.S.-China Center for Animal Health, and the Urban Water Institute Inc., which looks at managing water runoff and how water is used in the production of food.
In Virginia’s New River Valley area, much of the bioscience activity is facilitated by research taking place at Virginia Tech at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute. The region consists of four counties and the city of Radford. The region’s industry infrastructure also includes the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, the Fralin Life Science Institute, and the Virginia Tech Center for Genomics, among others.
The Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center in Blacksburg is home to Intrexon Corp., a synthetic biology company. The New River Valley is also home to TECHLAB Inc. in Blacksburg, which has announced expansion plans of an additional 54,000 square feet. The company develops and manufactures rapid noninvasive intestinal diagnostics in the areas of intestinal inflammation.
Moving to Norfolk, Va., and the Hampton Roads region of the state, bioscience activities are centered on bioelectrics, organ tissue banks; sensors, modeling and simulation; and medical phantoms, says Larry Lombardi, business development manager for technology, city of Norfolk. The Norfolk region has a diverse research and development science base, and a vast array of military, higher education and government institutions to support growing industries.
There are three national research centers in the area in bioelectrics, marine and proteomics. “There are private-public partnerships not in terms of dollars but in terms of research between government labs and research centers that are located around here,” Lombardi says.
Examples include a biosciences incubator in James City County; an innovation research park in Norfolk; and two buildings at Old Dominion University that house various bioscience and technology companies. Norfolk State University is building a facility to support modeling and sensor simulation work for medical purposes.
Moreover, Hampton University is home to the Proton Therapy Institute that focuses on cancer research. A Level III clean room is located in the public health building in Norfolk, which means the facility has been approved by the FBI and Homeland Security to conduct work on highly infectious diseases.
“Eastern Virginia Medical School was founded in the 1970s to fill the gap in the lack of medical schools in the region,” Lombardi says. The formation of the private medical school was developed through capital campaigns and was a community effort.
Lombardi says biosciences firms will find a pro-business community in Norfolk, from a corporate tax structure to Enterprise Zone designations. “If there are grants that companies want to go for from NIH or FDA, having that type of designation and support from the city, university and private institutions can make a difference in whether you will receive the award.”
We Have Your Back
Wertman says even though Sanofi’s Tucson staff is comprised of just 80 people, the company has its voice heard by local officials to a much greater extent than one might think. “There is the recognition that we are part of a much larger international corporation,” Wertman says. “It serves to validate for the local community that the bio and pharm industry can operate here and do so effectively.”
Through the partnerships the company has formed with local economic developers and business leaders, officials learn what needs to happen to make the location a better place to operate, and will call on the company to offer advice when companies are looking at the area. “It gives us a voice and chance to bring better alignment to our operations,” Wertman adds.
Ventana’s Aspinall notes Tucson’s bioscience synergies include a critical mass of talent working in a number of institutions that create a vibrancy that attracts more people to the area. “There is an atmosphere around science that has helped the biosciences,” she says. The University of Arizona is home to nationwide leading departments including info tech, optics, biostatistics, chemistry and geophysics.
Another factor is the area’s range of companies, from startups to large international companies and national institutions. What’s more, the Desert Angels venture capital group consists of retired biopharma executives who not only give funds but also offer sage advice to growing firms.
The university town atmosphere also lends itself to Ventana Medical Systems’ ability to attract staff, and their trailing spouses who need jobs. Sanofi’s Wertman says the southern Arizona lifestyle is a strong draw. He is originally from Arizona and has worked in Cambridge, Mass., and in San Francisco and was glad to have the chance to come back “to this marvelous environment and raise my family here.”
These quality of life opportunities, community support and infrastructure, and cluster synergies keep a talent base that labors in labs for years to bring medicines to market happy and productive.
For complete details about the organizations listed in this article, visit:
City of Norfolk, Va.
Kansas State University-Olathe Campus
New River Valley (Va.) Economic Development Alliance
Sanofi Combinatorial Technologies Center
Ventana Medical Systems Inc.