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By Bill Beggs Jr.

Once upon a time, Boston and California’s so-called Silicon Valley were practically the only hotbeds for biotech startup and its ongoing development.

Today, a handful of cities are being mentioned in the same breath as Beantown and ‘Frisco, and St. Louis is one of them. Over the last 10 years or so, and picking up the pace during the last five, St. Louis has emerged as a major biotech player, such that proponents have dubbed the bi-state region the BioBelt.

At least 40 states are targeting the plant and life sciences for economic development—all 50 offer technology-based economic development initiatives to biotech companies. But something special has been happening out here in the vast space between the two coasts, and the world is taking notice.

BIO 2006, the world-class biotech event, is being held April 9 to 12 in Chicago—the first time ever in the Midwest. An estimated 20,000 people from all over the world are expected.


Walter H. Plosila, Ph.D. Vice President of the Technology Partnership Practice
Battelle

At this conference two years ago, Battelle (the globally renowned research firm) released a comprehensive study—Laboratories of Innovation: State Bioscience Initiatives 2004. During an April 10 press conference at BIO 2006, Walter H. Plosila, Ph.D., vice president of the Technology Partnership Practice at Battelle, will drill deeper into the Laboratories of Innovation analysis. (At press time, the report had not been completed, and Plosila noted it was not expected to be available until just before BIO 2006.)

In a panel discussion following the press conference, Plosila will spotlight why St. Louis belongs among other up-and-coming metro areas (namely Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix) experiencing a remarkable surge in their biotech fortunes. Richard C.D. Fleming, president and CEO of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, will chair this session and moderate the panel.

Plosila makes no bones about his irritation with certain industry observers that seem to have a limited view of the scope and potential of biotechnology in this country. Like the movie reviewer who invariably pans or praises the movies by particular directors, this pervasive attitude seems to have closed the gates, maintaining that certain cities and regions already have captured the market.

Plosila’s esteemed opinion, in a word? “Nonsensical.”

“These areas aren’t getting a slice of the pie,” he says. “They’re growing the pie.”

As each of the four areas shares several strengths with the others—investment capital, infrastructure, an established or growing research base—all have leveraged their unique qualities. For one thing, neither Boston nor the Silicon Valley is known for corn or soybeans.

“An area must make an effort to build on its strengths in the biosciences,” Plosila points out. “Every one must find a niche in which they can play. It’s hard to be all things to all people.”

Mobility is another factor. For one reason or another, an idea that grows eventually into a commercially viable product might not stay where it was developed, any more than a college grad stays in the town where he grew up. For better or worse, the economic impact is felt elsewhere, too. For example, Boston may lose as many or more brilliant minds and marketable ideas as it gains.

“Lots of industries aren’t where they started,” says Plosila. “The auto industry’s in Detroit, not in Cleveland.”

Plosila—along with the area’s appointed mover and shaker who will be on the panel—weighs in on their region’s strong points, and challenges, presented in alphabetical order, with the panelists’ names in bold.

Baltimore

The city has two outstanding academic health centers in Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Plosila notes, with the latter ahead of JHU in terms of tech commercialization. The industrial base is ahead of the research base, and still has room to grow in the suburban bustle of Howard and Montgomery counties.


Jane Shaab
Vice President of Business Development University of Maryland, Baltimore

“Johns Hopkins is No. 1 in the world for sponsored research,” emphasizes Jane Shaab, vice president of business development for the University of Maryland, Baltimore. The urban university sits on 57 acres of a graduate campus, where new construction is brisk. Johns Hopkins is just three miles away from the BioPark, and proximity facilitates collaboration.

Much more is not very far. Private and federal labs dot the greater Baltimore-Washington area, along with other renowned hospitals such as Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In Bethesda, Md., is the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and one of the world’s foremost medical research centers.

And, with entities such as NIH flattening out their investment, the private sector is picking it up.

“Baltimore is in the forefront of bio development,” says Shaab. With growth in areas such as nanomedicine, the area is producing a “new wave of sciences, a new wave of discovery.”

The new wave of medical television series has benefited forensic medical research in the area, notes Shaab: “TV programs have done an excellent job of attracting young people.”

As has been the case in St. Louis and Chicago, Baltimore’s biotech development has helped reclaim declining neighborhoods.

Chicago

Research parks in various stages of maturity are a feature of the biotech cityscape in the Windy City, very high on the scale with its strength in pharmaceuticals, says Plosila.


David L. Gulley, Ph.D. Assistant Vice Chancellor University of Illinois-Chicago

In the not-too-distant past, the outlook was more gray and bleak around the lake, says David L. Gulley, Ph.D., assistant vice chancellor of the University of Illinois-Chicago, who serves as assistant vice president for technology and economic development. Not all that long ago, big corporations like Sears and Sunbeam pulled up stakes. Entrepreneurs tried to start up in fledgling research parks but had to move out because they couldn’t find any seed capital.

In the last 17 years, the city has experienced a renaissance.

“In the last five, there have been more well-thought-out, directed developments,” says Gulley, noting that the momentum has, among other things, led to the establishment of collaborations that couldn’t have existed before. Groups such as the Science Policy Council and Chicago Biomedical Consortium can flourish in an environment that encourages and rewards collaboration.

Companies have been able to reclaim abandoned space, a notable example being a new, state-of-the-art facility that Searle invested millions to develop. But that was during a period of economic uncertainty in the 1980s: “Pfizer shut the whole thing down, and 2,000 people left.”

That’s a far cry from the recent multimillion-dollar challenge put forth recently by the Searle family, one of many such capital commitments being made. A renowned San Francisco venture capitalist “has planted a flag; his presence will attract other funds as well.”

Incubator space has surged in the last three years, and startups that can’t afford to build their own research labs may have affordable access to those of area universities—including Northwestern and Rush universities, Gulley points out. When competition is minimized, everybody wins.

Phoenix

Like the legendary bird for which it was named, Phoenix is rising fast. Plosila says the region’s biotech strengths lie in areas such as cancer therapeutics and bioengineering, and that the influx of capital is impressive.

Not bad for the new kid on the biotech block. Arizona hasn’t even made it to 100—it became a state in 1912. Practically everything, from groundbreaking medical devices to a new medical school slated to open by 2010, is being fashioned from whole cloth. This phoenix didn’t have to shake off any ashes.


Barry Broome
President and CEO Greater Phoenix Economic Council

“We don’t have the fingerprints of the Pilgrims,” says Barry Broome, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. “Everybody’s learning at the same pace.”

Brand-new, state-of-the-art facilities are springing up throughout the region, and in Tucson. Notable pharmaceutical research aims to increasing the efficiency of drug delivery systems and to eliminating toxicity. Since there are no ivory towers in the desert, buildings don’t have to be retrofitted; they’re being built from the ground up.

Personalized medicine is one focus of the contemporary approach at the University of Arizona and other institutions that by and large aren’t mired in bureaucracy or hidebound by tradition.

“Tradition is a problem for biotech,” Broome says.

Broome says the market is dedicated to biotech development and has no qualms about going head-to-head with a Boston or San Francisco, not to mention that the climate is a very strong draw for new industry and talent.

St. Louis

Plosila credits institutions such as world-renowned Washington University Medical Center and “a champion” like Bill Danforth, a former Washington University chancellor, for much of the success of the BioBelt, as the biotech community in and around St. Louis has grown to be known.

At first, investments came from venture capital firms that were out of state. Today, several funds are right here in River City. But money is only part of the biotech equation anywhere, whether in Boston or Phoenix.


Robert T. Fraley, Ph.D. Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Monsanto Company

One way to look at the growth of the biotech industry in St. Louis is by taking a glance at the corporate timeline of Monsanto Co. Twenty-five years ago, it was a chemical company whose main claim to fame was a product called Astroturf.

“Today we’re the world’s largest seed and biotech company,” notes Robert T. Fraley, Ph.D., Monsanto’s executive vice president and chief technology officer. During the last 10 years, especially, the transformation in St. Louis wrought by the biotech revolution has been breathtaking. The first biotech crops sprouted scarcely 10 years ago, Fraley points out.

But plant science is only part of the St. Louis story. Great advances have been made in cancer treatments, in cardiac care, in pharmaceuticals, in the development and implementation of cutting-edge medical techniques and devices.

Although much has been accomplished so far, biotech is still in its infancy. Fraley compares today’s dizzying R&D environment to that of the computer revolution 40 years ago.

“It’s an escalating learning curve. We’re still in a 1960s equivalent.”

Battelle: internationally renowned and respected since 1929

A not-for-profit applied science and technology organization, Battelle oversees 19,000 staff members and conducts $3.4 billion in annual research and development. Among the national labs Battelle manages or co-manages are the prestigious Brookhaven and Oak Ridge national laboratories.

Battelle has helped develop innovative products for commercial customers by leveraging technology into competitive advantage. Teaming with more than 800 federal, state, and local government agencies, the company provides cost-effective science and technology solutions in health and life sciences, energy and environment, transportation and space, national security and homeland defense.

Battelle’s highly touted “Laboratories of Innovation” reports have identified areas that have experienced great advances in biotechnology.

The 2004 report identified the St. Louis region as a rapidly growing area, one to watch very closely. The 2006 report notes that the region is at the very top of its game.

Specific details will not be available until an April 10 press conference at BIO 2006 in Chicago, where Walter Plosila, Ph.D., vice president of the Technology Partnership Practice at Battelle, will unveil key findings of the 2006 report.

What else has the organization done lately?

Recently, Battelle teamed with Eli Lilly and Co. to develop a reusable insulin injection pen for the worldwide market. Battelle researchers also developed a specialized tubing to help prevent blood clots during surgical procedures.

Among other breakthroughs, Battelle researchers:

• Did pioneering work on optical digital recording technology that led to the compact disc.
• Played a crucial role in developing the office copier machine (Xerox). Battelle was awarded more than 250 patents related to the dry-copying process.
• Helped recommend a bar code symbol now used on packaging that enables automated checkout and inventory control at retail stores.

 

 

 

 


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