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TGen to Boost Workforce to Support Commercialization Activities

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) - Arizona's Translational Genomics Research Institute plans to boost its workforce in the coming year, maintaining the double-digit pace of growth it highlighted in a recent economic impact study.

"It will be about 80 percent research investigation, about evenly divided between computational biology and wet labs, with really only about a fifth of the positions coming in the area of administrative project management," Jeffrey Trent, TGen's president and research director, told GenomeWeb Daily News earlier this week.

Phoenix-based TGen plans over the next 12 months to add some 35 workers directly related to its commercialization activities to its current staff of about 300 people, Tess Burleson, the institute's chief operating officer, also told GWDN.

The exact number of hires is "going to depend upon some of the projects we've budgeted being landed. We've been pretty well on target, though, every year that we've done this," Burleson said.

Last year's workforce, along with another 200 jobs that indirectly resulted from activity at TGen, generated a combined $44.5 million in economic impact for the state of Arizona during 2008, according to a recent report, entitled, Energizing Arizona's Biomedical Future 2009: Positive Economic Benefits of TGen on the State of Arizona. That impact is expected to balloon to $85.3 million by 2015, and $166.1 million by 2025, the report concluded.

But when $32.9 million in activity at TGen spinoffs and companies which license technology from the institute was included, the economic activity rose to $77.4 million in 2008, with projections for $145.4 million in 2015, and $321.3 million in 2025.

"While new companies will be formed from research activities, the majority of economic, employment, and government revenue impacts will be attributable to growth of existing companies in the established bioscience/biomedical sector," the report concluded.

The 25-page report was prepared for TGen by Tripp Umbach, the Pittsburgh consultant specializing in economic studies for academic health organizations, research institutes, health systems, and universities.

TGen operates on a $65 million annual budget, most of which comes from federal and corporate grants.

The report's figures are well above the economic activity and job projections offered by Tripp Umbach in a 2006 economic impact study of TGen. Back then, Tripp Umbach projected, the total economic impact of the institute and its commercial activity would rise from the $21.7 million recorded for 2006, to $60.7 million in 2010, $114.3 million in 2015, and $202.4 million in 2025.

According to the 2006 study, TGen and its commercial activities would grow in total workforce from the 220 direct and indirect jobs recorded for 2006, to 889 jobs in 2010, 1,816 jobs in 2015, and 3,125 jobs in 2025. The 2006 study showed no jobs or economic activity attributable solely to commercial spinouts or licensing.

Trent and Burleson said the rosier projections since then reflect TGen's additional jobs, as well as the institute's successes in research collaborations with other institutions, and in commercializing its technologies through company spinouts and licensing.

Among its collaborations is an alliance with the Van Andel Research Institute of Grand Rapids, Mich. The accord is designed to wed Van Andel's basic research expertise with TGen's translational genomics and analysis capabilities, in order to advance the study of diseases such as cancer, neurological disorders, diabetes, and infectious diseases.

In addition, TGen and the University of Arizona recently combined to win $7.5 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding toward a drug discovery and development center that will assemble a translational medicinal chemistry team to design and select drug candidates for cancer, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, and exposure to pathogens, among other ailments.

As of Oct. 6, TGen has won $7.8 million in six ARRA-funded grants. The grants will lead to additional jobs at the institute, Burleson said, though exactly how many is only now being counted.

The institute also has been successful in reeling in NIH funding. For example, for the federal fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2008, TGen had received four NIH grants totaling $10.97 million, almost five times the $2.4 million in four grants awarded in FY 2003. And so far in fiscal 2009, TGen has received 25 grants from NIH totaling $18.5 million, according to the NIH grants database.

Since it was established in 2002, TGen has spun out and licensed its technologies to a combined seven companies, resulting in up to 45 jobs, with another two companies in the process of being spun out of the institute, "and we're actually looking at potentially a 10th and an 11th on the horizon," Burleson told GWDN.

According to the report, the commercialization activities yielded 242 direct and indirect jobs in 2008; no comparable figure was included in the 2006 study. The job number is expected to rise to 1,161 by 2015, and 1,784 by 2025.

According to the Tripp Umbach report, TGen itself generated $8.09 in activity for every dollar invested by the state of Arizona, on track to produce $15.50 per state dollar in 2015, and $30.20 per state dollar in 2025. When its commercial activities are included, the numbers rise to $14.07 per state dollar in 2008, with projected hikes to $26.44 in 2015 and $58.42 in 2025.

TGen receives $5.5 million per year of state tobacco settlement funds earmarked for health research, under an accord that runs through 2012. That's up from $5 million per year when the previous economic study was done in 2006. Trent noted that Arizona opted to subsidize TGen when it was established, despite facing a $1 billion budget deficit.

"We're certainly hopeful that we're deserving of continued support, and anticipate that that will be the case" — given Gov. Jan Brewer's standing as a TGen board member and past support for the institute.

Like most states this year, Arizona has struggled all year to plug budget holes wrought by declining tax revenues that officials blame on the recession. In crafting the state's current $8.7 billion budget, Arizona lawmakers eliminated $25 million in funds for Science Foundation Arizona (SFAz), the nonprofit public-private group that promotes development of the state's biotech and other tech industries.

However, Burleson said TGen had not been awarded any SFAz funds to date, and no such funding had been included in the institute's projections. But TGen was in talks with the foundation about possible future funding, she added.

"We were talking with them about planning some projects in which we had mutual interest, that we really believed we could do together," Burleson said. "It certainly was something we had hoped to have an opportunity, so that opportunity is gone."

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