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States Fight for Biotech Turf

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The genome race has begun. No, you haven’t stumbled into a time warp: We’re talking about the race to develop and capitalize on a new genomics economy. California, Michigan, and North Carolina are among the states now plunging into genome territory, giving money to universities, businesses, and anything else that might pay off.

California’s Governor Gray Davis has adopted biotech as a new buzzword. He organized an initiative to give $100 million over four years to the new Institute for Bioengineering, Biotechnology, and Quantitative Research, based at UC San Francisco and shared by UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz. The universities must secure two-to-one matching private funds to qualify for state money.

Hilary McLean, a representative from Davis’s office, says, “The governor used as the model the Stanford Research Institute, which really helped create Silicon Valley. And look what happened — they’ve created a whole new economy.”

Visions of a new economy lure others, too. Former Governor Jim Hunt announced the creation of the North Carolina Genomics and Bioinformatics Consortium to foster partnerships among that state’s private and public science organizations. Barry Teater, director of corporate communications at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, sees no alternative. “Genomics will drive the biotechnology industry for the next 50 years, probably. Anybody who wants to be in biotechnology will have to be in genomics.”

North Carolina hasn’t designated a funding amount, but Teater says it will be high. “It takes a lot of money to have a serious commitment to it.”

The idea is to get North Carolina’s genomics-interest groups — including GlaxoWellcome, SAS, IBM, and academic centers — to share information and plan strategic initiatives, thereby putting North Carolina ahead of the competition.

One of North Carolina’s main competitors is Michigan, which recently set aside one billion dollars of its $8.5 billion tobacco settlement over the next 20 years to “establish a life sciences corridor,” says Jennifer Kopp of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. “We want to encourage collaboration between universities and companies,” she explains. “We don’t have a great mass of [life sciences] companies right now, but we do have a great number of students graduating with life sciences degrees who are leaving the state instead of staying.”

Keeping genomics money in the state is a priority for everyone. But what set off this rush? The end of the genome race, says Teater. “Now that we know the sequence of almost the whole human genome, there’s a greater urgency to get on this immediately.”

—Meredith Salisbury

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