Last December, a publication that focuses on local business ran a story about how the Battelle Memorial Institute was creating a "road map" for the state to become a biotech powerhouse. The article went on to quote the governor about how important an industry biotech was becoming for the state.
I found this article quite illuminating, even though the Tribune ran similar pieces at the time about Battelle’s road map for the state biotech industry. Why?
The article was from the Denver Business Journal. The state was Colorado, and the governor quoted about the economic wonders of biotech was Bill Owens, not Janet Napolitano.
I already knew Arizona was headed down the same road with every other state chasing biotech dollars. Now I realized that we had stopped and asked for directions at the same filling station as Colorado did. As did other states or regions.
Not every state or metropolitan region has a road map from Battelle — but at least five do. Battelle, a nonprofit based in Columbus, Ohio, and dedicated to science, is the top source for biotech development expertise. Then again, while Bill Parcells might be the best football coach around, I wouldn’t want him coaching my team and four other teams in the league.
Beyond that, there are two other speed bumps on the biotech road.
First, we are way behind in this intense competition.
Second, this competition may have few if any regional or state winners.
While every state sees biotech as a way to diversify and stabilize its economy and create jobs and wealth for its residents, the industry is awash in red ink.
Accounting and consulting giant Ernst & Young estimated that as an industry biotech in the Untied States lost $11.6 billion in 2002.
Ernst & Young pegged the industry’s growth in sales at 13.5 percent from 2001 to 2002. Meanwhile net losses grew by 71.2 percent — and more than doubled for publicly traded companies.
Rather than an economic cure-all, biotech looks more like an expensive jobs program. Or perhaps, that’s the wrong approach.
George Poste, director of the newly created Arizona Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, gave a speech at the Economic Club of Phoenix last month in which he likened the biotech industry in the state to an expansion team, the initial investments are like paying for a stadium.
"Make no mistake — we are big league," he said, before promising to take us to a Super Bowl. He was speaking in terms of the industry’s economic impact. While I disagree with his conclusion, I see some parallels with sports franchises.
We have committed $100 million in private and public funds to the Translational Genomics Research Institute and $440 million for university facilities. That’s a lot of money.
But to put it in perspective, this Valley spent about $1 billion in private and mostly public funds over the past 11 years to build four palaces to house our pro sports teams.
Sports arenas are often sold to the public as drivers for the local economy. At this they largely fail. Still, arenas and the teams do have value for the community and add to the quality of life. At times the teams unite us as nothing else can. Once in a while, they give us an excuse for a parade.
Translational Genomics Research Institute and its companion International Genomics Consortium might help lead us to a cure for cancer, or cures and treatments for other diseases such as diabetes. What price is that worth?
At the Arizona Biodesign Institute, Charles Arntzen is working on genetic engineering of plants to produce edible vaccines. That could revolutionize medical care in the Third World. If that creates, say only 50 jobs locally, so be it. The money would be well spent.
Battelle’s road map calls for Arizona to invest $140 million a year for the next 10 years to catch up to other states. Whatever amount we decide to spend, let’s do it with the idea that biotech can cure diseases but not all our economic ills.