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Q&A: Georgia Gov. Perdue Relishes BIO's Global Exposure for State Life-Sci; Eyes Common Ground on Stem Cell Issue

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ATLANTA — Thousands of life sciences professionals can be expected to take in the World of Coca-Cola, the CNN Studio Tour, a Braves baseball game, a visit to the trendy Buckhead section, or some of this city's other tourist spots as they spend much of this week here for the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s BIO 2009 International Convention.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue also hopes those 12,000 to 15,000 BIO 2009 attendees come away from Atlanta with a souvenir of another sort — a new appreciation for how far the Peach Tree State has come in recent years in fusing its disparate institutions and companies into a life sciences cluster capable of competing with much larger clusters for life-sci companies and their jobs.

The state can boast of many attractions for life-sci businesses and their staffs: Atlanta alone hosts the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service-Southeast Poultry Research Lab, the headquarters of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Cancer Society Center, the humanitarian group CARE, and the Arthritis Foundation's national office.

But challenges remain. Georgia continues to overcome a reputation as a isolated tech backwater, despite the presence of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which according to the US Federal Aviation Administration was the nation’s busiest airport last year with a combined 978,084 takeoffs and landings, despite a 1.3 percent dip in those combined operations over 2007.

The state's campaign to persuade the US Department of Homeland Security to build its planned National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Athens, Ga., failed last year, due to a smaller package of economic incentives and more citizen opposition than found in the winner of that five-state competition, Kansas [BRN, Dec. 8, 2008]. Georgia also tried, but failed, in 2006 to woo a $600 million Novartis manufacturing plant for cell culture-derived influenza vaccines, now under construction and set to employ 350 people when completed in 2011.

More recently, some life sciences professionals have joined their industry association, GeorgiaBio, in criticizing a bill pending in the state House of Representatives that would forbid the creation of new stem cell lines by Georgia's research institutions. While institutions cite the potential value of such research in helping develop drugs against diseases, Perdue and supporters of Senate Bill 169 have said the benefits to Georgia from unfettered creation of new stem-cell lines is outweighed by what they have called the moral wrong of the embryo destruction involved. The House's Science and Technology Committee is set to hold hearings on the bill in September or October.

BioRegion News interviewed Gov. Sonny Perdue on Monday at his State Capitol office about BIO 2009 and the broader challenges of helping Georgia grow its life sciences industry. Following is an edited transcript of the interview.

What does having BIO 2009 in Atlanta mean to your state and its life sciences effort?

It's a big deal, mostly because while we go soliciting the companies in the bio- and life sciences around the world, when you're able to invite someone to your hometown, your capital city, and your state, where they can see for themselves the advantages that we have here, it is very important to us. It's like you can meet somebody, but you learn more about them when you go to their home. And that’s the way we feel here: When we’re able to invite the world into our home, they see the culture, they see the context of the things that we offer, and oftentimes that can’t be put on a brochure or a fancy, glossy invitation.

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What do you see as the strengths of Georgia and its life sciences effort, as well as some of the challenges?

One of those things I’m glad [BIO attendees] saw when they came here was, they see the global connectivity to all over the world. Hartsfield is the world’s busiest airport. You can get from right here in Atlanta to anywhere in the world more directly than you can from any other place, including New York. The fact is, when [life sciences professionals] experience that connectivity coming here, they say, ‘Wow! It’s easy to get to Georgia.’ And people like to be able to get to their investments. They like to be able to check on their companies. So the global connectivity is one of the things that we offer here to global companies. Bioscience is a global industry, and the marketplace is the world. That’s important.

Secondly, I think it’s an opportunity for us to showcase the people, the talent here in Georgia, the institutions of higher education and learning, and the cooperation that they have there. It’s an opportunity to show off the talented workforce. I tell major companies in biosciences and others that you can recruit to Atlanta from everywhere. There are places where companies are located that are having difficulty recruiting people to come to that headquarters location now. But young professionals, particularly, want to be in Atlanta. It is one of those happening places in which people want to be. And it’s a great quality of lifestyle, a relatively low-cost areas in which to live and enjoy the wonderful amenities of the capital of the South. That’s the second thing.

And then thirdly, I think it is the collaborative spirit that we have between our state government, our university system, and our business culture that truly is a partnership. You have to come to sense the fact that Georgia and our state government want businesses to succeed. Profit is not a dirty word in Georgia. And we want advanced, high-tech companies of the future — many of them are in the biosciences — to locate here. Georgia was a beneficiary of the textile migration from the Northeast through the South, and enjoyed the benefits of the textile industry for 50 years. But that has moved all away, and it’s not going to return to Georgia. We want to look at things that have a global marketplace, and healthcare [and] bio/life sciences have a literal global; marketplace for the future. [Thomas] Friedman talks about the world getting flatter; the businesses that we want to create here, we want them to be able to market to the world, and to be able to provide the talent, and the connectivity that these companies can succeed with.

You mentioned many strengths. What do you see as some of the remaining challenges Georgia faces?

I think one is reputation, from a standpoint of awareness. We are not a new kid, but a relatively young kid on the block. I think we’re an up-and-comer, and maybe not proven in this industry to the degree that we will be proven. What we’re saying is, ‘Come take a look. Try us out. Give us a shot.’ And we’ll prove to you that we can pitch the strikes, and get people out, and deliver the product.

North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue [no relation] says she’s not satisfied with her state being number-three in biotechnology, and wants her state’s life-science sector to reach the top. Would you go as far as to rank Georgia?

I would rank it as different. Georgia has a more diversified bioindustry. We don’t have a venue location like [North Carolina's] Research Triangle Park, but we are more diversified. The most renowned public health organization in the world, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, located here, adjacent to Emory University, a renowned university. The cancer society, CARE — those components give us a more diversified workforce in many areas.

We don’t have the concentration of maybe pharmaceutical manufacturing companies that North Carolina does. But that’s not our expertise, necessarily. We’ve got great research capabilities from Emory, Georgia Tech, University of Georgia, and Georgia State. We’ve got the [UGA] veterinary school in Athens, which is a great animal research facility with a [Biosafety Level] 3 laboratory over there. There are a lot of assets here. We don’t try to be, and should not try to be, a North Carolina. We’re very happy being Georgia, we’re very happy being our state in this arena. We think we are up-and-coming. We think North Carolina probably is a more mature market, and frankly, sometimes the competitions among those labor forces, we think they will find more opportunity for a talented labor force here in Georgia.

You mentioned the veterinary school. You were a veterinarian before you became an elected official. Given that Georgia tried and didn’t attract the NBAF facility, are there lessons from that that can be applied, that can strengthen Georgia’s biocluster going forward?

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I really think that was a federal decision based to a large degree on incentives and finances. We were very proud of the proposal that we put forward, and think we had all the components that NBAF was looking at. We, at the end of the day, were disappointed not to attract NBAF. I thought it would have been a powerful component to have the renowned human CDC and the animal CDC right here in Georgia. I think that could have been a lot of synergy between those.

The lesson learned was, at some point, you’ve got to put forward your best foot. We don’t necessarily try to attract industry with just money and incentives. We feel like those things you buy can also be bought off. And so we have not tried to put money as a primary attraction for coming to Georgia. We want to talk about business climate, business environment, the collaboration between policy makers, regulatory people, and the success of the business community. We think those in the end, long-term, are more valuable than incentives, or buying business.

Florida has showered a half dozen research institutes with a total exceeding $1 billion in state and local incentives. To what extent has that shaped or affected Georgia?

Frankly aside from Scripps [Research Institute], I cannot see that it has in any way. I think, again, people come to Georgia for a different reason. They come for a combination of factors which, as a businessperson, I believe offer a much more long-term and sustainable potential for success than the fast buck. And I believe smart CEOs, smart boards of directors, will understand we want an environment in which we could be successful. You might go to some place with more upfront incentive, and less upfront risk. But the long-term success rate, we believe, will be better in Georgia.

That’s what we’re trying to see: Quality. We’re trying to sell quality. We’re trying to sell long-term relationships. We’re trying to sell value from a culture of business success, rather than buying business.

Yet your state has primed the pump, in a sense, with programs like the venture fund created last year, and the facilities fund.

Appropriately. These are very modest compared to some of the huge amounts that you see otherwise. We want to be able to help at the right time. We believe that there are incentives in the bio/life sciences, at certain stages of research, that ought to be incentivized. And we’ve done our best to birth and to nurture — from basic research to commercialization projects and products — that give us the opportunity for these companies to be successful. We think that’s an appropriate role of government. But again, to almost overwhelm them with money on the front end that goes away. We want something that is enduring, and I believe — write this down — I think Georgia has enduring qualities.

Given those qualities, are there additional state subsidies is there no further reel for state pump-priming?

That remains to be seen. Obviously, most states here are in physical constraints right now. And I think at the appropriate time, Georgia would be willing to step up if it meant long-term success. I believe that Georgia doesn’t need to buy business. I think we don’t plan to be a low-cost leader, because we’ve got value and quality to sell. But all the while, we want to make sure that we’re in the game, and we will do what it takes at the right time. I’m very comfortable where we are right now. But the question you asked about whether that means we’ll never do anything in the future. Obviously, I can’t answer that, because we’ll do what it takes to grow and to develop this industry.

[Perdue on Monday rolled out what Georgia considers one sign of its commitment to its life sciences sector, a new database designed to track life-sci activity across the state].

Georgia’s biggest headlines in the life sciences sphere have concerned Senate Bill 169, or as it is formally titled, the “Ethical Treatment of Embryos Act.” It’s in the House. With the bill as it is right now, is that something you could sign if it clears the House?

I’ve never talked about signing bills. They are so “dynamic. It’s not unlike our president calling at Notre Dame. These are deep ethical, philosophical issues that require candid discussion. And I think Georgia will approach it in a very respectful fashion.

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Obviously, I’m of the personal persuasion that I do not believe human embryos ought to be created, and ought to be killed, for science. I think we’re smarter than that. I think we can do things in a much more humane, ethical way by using human tissue — that is not creating a human embryo, or destroying it for sciences sake.

That’s my personal opinion. But I believe there’s room for common ground in this area of promoting science, under the guide of appropriate ethics, and morals, and philosophies in this changing environment as we become more able to do different things scientifically. It’s a very cautious area in which we need to proceed, and I think the benefit of the doubt ought to be with human life in that regard. I believe we can do that scientifically. I believe that we’re smart enough to take other tissues in a way that can create that [reconciliation of interests], and I think it has already been demonstrated.

Sometimes, people in [the life sciences] industry, and the people in this area try to devolve this down into a life issue, or a stem cell issue. I don’t think that’s the right answer. I think we can find common ground in which to promote and project the best scientific solutions while respecting life.

Can Georgia, in effect, be a hub for a more bioethical life sciences industry?

I think that would be great. And I’m not accusing anyone of being unethical. I’m saying there are unanswered ethical, moral questions about where we can go in this arena. I think we’re willing in Georgia to have a very respectful discussion about that, without exploiting all the emotions that take place on both sides. Georgia values intellectual ability. It values intellectual research. It values scientific research. And that’s not to say we don’t also value and respect human life.

After next year, you will be term-limited out of office. What policies would you like to see your successor pursue in terms of advancing the state’s life sciences industry?

I believe Georgia’s reputation and awareness will continue to grow because of the things that I mentioned — the global access; the talent pool; the creativity of new and talented workers who will be able to recruit talent from all over the world here, and the cooperation from our state government. This is a process; it’s not an event. There’s no expectation that I will have done everything that needs to be done by the time my term ends. But these states have a life long beyond me.

I’d love to see Georgia continue to grow, to welcome companies that want to make life better — that’s what the bio/life sciences is about: To make our lives better, to make our quality of life better. That’s what this whole industry is about. The tagline that we have here in the conference, which I asked [BIO] to keep over from last year, is “Heal, fuel, feed the world." I was so impressed with the ability of this industry to heal, to feed, and to fuel the world. That’s an exciting potential for me. And I think as we all grow, and as Georgia welcomes this industry more and more into giving it the ability to use its creative ability, to really accomplish and implement these things, it ought to be an exciting future.