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How to Build a Biotech Hotbed

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Bob Holden, governor of Missouri since 2000, has spent two years and as much tobacco-settlement money and general revenue as he could get his hands on to convince people that his state is the “BioBelt” — a statewide biotech cluster with hubs in St. Louis and Kansas City.

Perhaps best known for genomics powerhouse Washington University, St. Louis in particular has been a draw for industry companies and institutes such as Orion Genomics and the bioinformatics-heavy Danforth Plant Science Center. A new $60 million life science research center is going up at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where proteomics will have its own division. And this November, the state will vote on an initiative to increase the cigarette tax to raise $800 million over 20 years for the life sciences.

At the massive BIO meeting in Toronto this year, Holden took a break from drumming up biotech business for Missouri to sit down with GT’s Meredith Salisbury and shed some light on what it takes to put together a regional cluster — and keep it going.

It seems everyone’s trying to launch the next genomics hotbed. Realistically, how many biotech clusters can the US support?

HOLDEN: I think we can support as many as our intellectual advancement will allow. That’s the reason math and science academies at the early ages are so very important; it’s the reason why we’re putting so much emphasis on higher education. Because truly, this is a limitless frontier for those regions or those communities that see the potential.

You’ve said in the past that Missouri has lots to build on with players like Monsanto and WashU. What about regions that don’t have that?

HOLDEN: There are so many opportunities that any state or any region can be successful. The key will be defining where you want to go, how you want to get there. Put together a plan that gets you there the most efficient way possible. If you’re trying to take a limited amount of money and throw it at something and hope that it sticks, I don’t think that’s the right approach. What you’ve got to do is target your resources very carefully and try to maximize them.

What lessons have you learned that would help other clusters succeed?

HOLDEN: You must analyze your situation very carefully. You must look at what your environment gives you [and] develop a strategic plan that incorporates all of that information. You must develop the venture capital and the capital tools necessary to do it. You’ve got to work on making sure you’ve got a good transition between the intellectual experimentation and the development of products for the market. You’ve got to have a commitment on the part of government to be a partner in this process.

What all of these efforts seem to have done, even in those that were not initially successful and didn’t meet their goals, is they created so much intellectual capacity in the area that it made the area itself economically viable in the years ahead.

Is there a danger that promoting the cluster could actually drain talent from the universities as public-sector experts move to industry?

HOLDEN: In fact, you’re going to enrich the university pool, because creative people like to work around creative people. Intellectually stimulated people like to experiment, and so the larger the cluster of intellectual entities you’re going to have working in an area — it grows on itself, it feeds on its success.

You have to be careful to make sure that you have very distinct boundary lines [between] what is university activity and what is private sector activity and [know] how the two should come together. There’s a role for both. A growing economy that is environmentally safe and is based on intellectual advancement is a winning combination.

 

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