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Wish Lists and Wishful Thinking

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Instead of resolutions, we start the New Year by asking some big pharma technology users, “What’s on your 2003 wish list?” If you’re a genomics technology developer or vendor, your own list likely starts with getting your product onto their wish lists. This month’s cover story should offer you a few clues for how to get there.

But in the meantime, take heart: You might not be on pharma’s wish list, but you are on someone else’s. If you’ve got a life-sciences business, then Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania would love to have you. They are among the states that have recently announced initiatives to provide tax incentives, establish educational programs (read about Ohio’s on p. 22), and build biomedical research complexes, core facilities, and incubators, all in order to attract biomedical technology businesses to their turf and turn themselves into the next life sciences epicenter.

Politicians around the country see biotechnology as an emerging miracle sector that can bring high-paying jobs, wealth, and stability to their electorates. (Fundraisers for Ben-Gurion University in Israel went so far as to argue to deep-pocketed New Yorkers recently that biotech development in the Negev would bring peace to the Middle East.)

Arizona government officials, who have gotten a leg up by persuading the International Genomics Consortium and the Translational Genomics Research Center to locate operations there, are counting on new life sciences development to bring stability to their economy. After studying the state’s prospects, Battelle Memorial Institute offered a 10-year roadmap for putting Arizona on a fast track to national bioscience stature. An annual investment of $140 million over 10 years could bring triple the annual NIH funding to the state, generate more than 32,000 jobs and 120 companies, and offer a return of at least $6 on each $1 invested, Battelle recommended.

In Indiana, a state hit hard by the recession, Governor Frank O’Bannon recently told a local newspaper that his state’s citizens “cannot rest until we become a national leader” in life sciences. Some $1.5 billion in funding has been promised for Indiana life sciences initiatives through 2005.

In Iowa, one group of biotech business advocates has proposed streamlining government in order to reduce the tax burden that deters biotech companies from locating facilities there (so genomics will reform government before it produces cures?) and a recent headline in Research Triangle Park’s Business Journal used the word “stalks” to describe the tactics developers there were using to lure genomics company Athersys from Ohio.

In New York there’s a growing movement to boost the sector. This month the first tenants are expected to occupy a new 50,000-square-foot biotech incubator in Brooklyn at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center; NYU is building a 300,000-square-foot biomedical research park in Manhattan, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering is coordinating a third.

For all its muscle in life sciences research, however — the city is home to 25 academic medical centers and two major pharma headquarters — New York is getting a surprisingly late start. The city has lagged far, far behind San Francisco, San Diego, and Boston as a home to life sciences enterprises, and all but a handful of firms that have started up here have left (New York City is currently home to about 30 biotechnology companies, according to the New York Biotechnology Association).

Why? Experts cite a number of reasons, from lack of affordable space to cultural obstacles to scientific exchange. Harold Varmus complained last autumn in a New York Times editorial that “ever since moving to New York three years ago, I have been frustrated by the near absence of a biotech industry in the region.” Varmus blamed “historical accident and misperception” and said that a little self-promotion and about $300 million could go a long way to correct that.

John Maroney, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s director of commercial relations, says that what New York needs most is strong leadership. In an interview with Craig Kasper, a New York recruiter who has done his part to boost biotech business in the region by launching a community newsletter, Maroney said, “We need someone who will be the Biotech Czar.” That would be on every state’s wish list.

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