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Germany's Sartorius Biotech Signs Up for URI Training Program; Eyes Expanding in State

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A University of Rhode Island program that trains students for biotech careers welcomed its newest corporate partner last week, a familiar presence in the state despite having no facilities there.
 
Germany-based Sartorius Biotech, a provider of laboratory and lab-process technologies, plans to incrementally sign up its 250 North American employees for URI’s Biotech Training Initiative. An equal number of those employees hold manufacturing and marketing positions.
 
“It’s a good location for us. We’re in New York. We have a high concentration of business in Boston and the Lexington, [Mass.] area – we have a lot of customers there. It works very well for us,” Mary Lavin, president and managing director of Sartorius North America, told BioRegion News.
 
The company maintains its US headquarters in Edgewood, NY. In Rhode Island its only presence is the office of a manufacturer’s representative based in Greenville.
 
The URI program is similar to one at the University of Maryland for which Sartorius has donated equipment and sent employees. “As in Maryland, we looked at the region and said, ‘We need to grow our business there. We need to also grow knowledge there for Sartorius, for future employees and also for future customers,” Lavin added. “We decided it would be in our best interests to participate in setting up the [URI] center. We’ll grow future customers this way, too.”
 
Sartorius donated $150,000 worth of equipment – including bioreactors, a membrane filter integrity tester, and tangential flow-filtration units – to the URI program, which is based at its Feinstein Providence campus. The donation brings to $1.5 million the amount URI has raised toward the four-year-old program — $750,000 from the federal government, $500,000 from the state, and the rest in donations from participating companies [see sidebar].
 
On May 15, Lavin joined URI administrators and top state officials, led by Gov. Donald Carcieri, to fete the URI-Sartorius partnership, including a ribbon-cutting of a new lab that will house the company’s equipment.
 
The event allowed the officials to promote the Ocean State as an emerging biotech cluster that offered companies a lower-cost alternative to Boston-Cambridge; New Haven, Conn.; New York, and other life-sciences clusters along the northeastern portion of I-95.
 
Kaplan said Rhode Island’s next initiative for biotech entrepreneurs and others is a $10 million fund that aims to attract startup biotechs and others companies in high-wage sectors seeking 50-percent tax credits, to a maximum $100,000. The program sunsets in 10 years and can award a maximum of $2 million per two-year period.
 
“We hope that’s going to make a real difference in strengthening our platform for new company creation,” Kaplan said.
 
Island Hoping
 
The fund was one of several measures approved last year by Carcieri and Rhode Island’s General Assembly in hopes of expanding the state’s biotech sector. As part of one of these measures, the Biotech Jobs Growth Act of 2006, the state extended from seven to 15 years its investment tax credits for biotechs. In exchange, companies promise to pay employees more than the state average of $48,000 per year and expand their work forces by 9.5 percent annually.
 
Not all Rhode Island’s biotech support programs are new. Over the past 10 years, more than a dozen life science companies were among more than 90 tech businesses that received $15 million from the state’s Slater Technology Fund, which provides up to $3 million a year in seed funding for tech-based in Rhode Island. The companies as a result were able to attract $200 million in additional investor funding.
 
“States and countries are competing for the same kinds of companies that we are. We’ve got to be on our game, doing the best job we possibly can, training the best people we can with the best talent that we can put together,” Carcieri said at the ribbon-cutting, noting that he led the state’s delegation earlier this month at the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s annual conference in Boston. “In that competition, we will get our share, hopefully. This is a good industry for us with real potential for the future, and it’s one that I believe strongly in supporting.”
 
With a state budget deficit projected to top $400 million over the next two years, Rhode Island officials have been anxious to promote economic development through biotech and other high-tech industries.
 
Addressing the 3rd Annual URI Northeast Regional Biotechnology Symposium, an event held before the ribbon-cutting, Kaplan said the focus on biotech would help Rhode Island meet one key economic-development policy objective: raising the percentage of residents earning above the national average annual salary, which was $40,717 as of 2004.
 
According to Kaplan, 40 percent of workers in Rhode Island earn above that average, compared with 59 percent for Massachusetts and 56 percent for Connecticut.
 
Also, Rhode Island officials project the state could generate 77,000 new jobs and $83 million in additional income tax revenue if it could match Massachusetts in the percentage of workers earning above the national average.
 
“I think that would come in handy this month when the General Assembly is working through our budget dilemma,” said Kaplan. “The way out has got to be by creating an innovation economy, a growth economy that produces higher-wage jobs [and] that belongs here in the Northeast.”
 
According to a study published last month by Rhode Island’s Department of Labor and Training, between 2001 and 2006 the state’s 150 biotech companies added 1,756 jobs, or nearly half of the state’s 3,377 biotech jobs [see accompanying chart].
 
Yet even as non-farm private-sector employment grew 3.5 percent, or 14,200 jobs, during that period, the state’s manufacturing base shrank 30 percent, or 21,200 jobs, from 72,500 in January 2001 to 51,300 in December 2006.
 
Job creation has been a key issue for Carcieri, who was elected in 2002 in part by promising to add at least 20,000 new jobs to the state’s payrolls during his first term. When government jobs are included, Rhode Island generated a total 22,000 jobs in that period.
 
“Our challenge is not just creating jobs. Our challenge is creating better jobs and higher-wage jobs. We need to look more like our neighbors to the north and south in terms of the kinds of jobs that we’re creating,” Kaplan said.
 
‘Biotech Boot Camp’
 
URI’s biotech training initiative aims to help the state reach that goal. As part of the bachelor’s-degree program, students take a year of full-time classes followed by an internship and a biomanufacturing certificate that enables them — but does not guarantee them — to get industry jobs. Students spend the next two to three years completing a four-year program on evenings, weekends, or online, typically with reimbursement from their employers.
 
The program accepts 20 to 22 new students each year. About 100 undergraduates and 75 with graduate degrees are enrolled in the program, and enrollment has swelled to 25 in fall 2005 from 12 in 2004.
 
The course costs students $12,000, of which they can recoup $8,000 through a grant from the US Labor Department.
 
“We call it biotech boot camp,” said Gregory Paquette, professor and director of URI’s clinical laboratory science and biotechnology programs. “While we can teach them a lot of the science and technology, we really want them to have a real-world experience.”
 
The program could grow beyond its current three labs and six faculty members if enrollment increases enough to justify it, Paquette said. “We’re at the point where now that we have the space and the equipment, we’re probably going to start expanding,” he said. “The demand is there. The need is there. It all comes down to the economics. Unless you can double everything, it’s really not cost effective.”
 
Participants in the program range from Amgen, the state’s largest biotech employer with 1,700 workers at a West Greenwich plant, to start-up EpiVax, a Providence-based provider of protein and genome-analysis services.
 
Anne DeGroot, founder, president, and CEO of EpiVax, said her company has taken on interns placed through URI’s training program. Work has included preparing cell cultures, carrying out ELISA and T-cell assays, and other tasks in molecular biology. So far, the company has hired two interns as full-time employees.
 
“It’s huge. It’s so great. We have to hire people away from Boston, so having our own home-grown biotech specialists is just enormous,” said DeGroot, who is also an adjunct associate professor of medicine at Brown University School of Medicine. “It’s a very important program and that is why I am a big proponent of it.”
 
For URI, the program is part of a larger biotech focus that has grown university-wide over the past decade. Some 30 miles south of Providence, URI broke ground last month on the $60 million, 140,000-square-foot Center for Life Sciences at its Kingston campus.
 
URI intends to expand its life-sciences presence further. Last year 62 percent of state voters approved spending $65 million toward a new College of Pharmacy building expected to cost between $75 million and $80 million. The new building is set to start construction in about a year, said Jeffrey Seemann, dean of the URI College of Environment and Life Sciences.
 
Seemann, who also chairs the state Science and Technology Advisory Council, said URI will pursue another referendum in 2008 to fund new nursing school and chemistry buildings also planned for the Kingston campus.
 
URI has also begun planning for a research and technology park to be created at the Kingston campus on 113 vacant acres recently acquired by the university. That work is being overseen by Peter Alfonso, who joined URI in March as vice provost for research, graduate studies, and outreach.
 
Alfonso came to URI from the University of North Dakota, where he was vice president for research for four years and served as creator and president of the UND Research Foundation for three. The foundation shepherded the development of UND’s Center for Life Sciences and Advanced Technologies, a $12 million, 50,000-square-foot facility that broke ground last December.
 

“We decided it would be in our best interests to participate in setting up the [URI] center. We’ll grow future customers this way, too.”

Alfonso is now working to create a similar foundation in Rhode Island to support the tech park URI envisions for Kingston. A bill chartering a URI Research Foundation — State Senate Bill S0558 — is pending before state lawmakers.
 
The foundation would manage the research park and take over management of patents and other intellectual properties now overseen by the URI Foundation, while Alfonso would take over grants accounting work now handled by Robert Weygand, the university’s vice president for administration.
 
Overseeing the research foundation would be a board of between four and 13 members, with URI President Robert Carothers, Alfonso, and Weygand among ex officio members.
 
Alfonso told BioRegion News the research park would be divided into parcels to be planned one at a time. Work has begun on planning the project’s first phase, to consist of five buildings. The size of those buildings has not been determined except that each building would likely run the average size for R&D use, “somewhere on the order of 50,000 to 60,000 square feet”
 
“The first few buildings will probably be very flexible. As we lease space to corporate partners, we can modify the laboratory space within these buildings very easily to accommodate the different purposes of each partner,” said Alfonso, who is also a professor of communicative disorders in the URI College of Human Science and Services.
 
“We want to build facilities that would house both our corporate partners and URI research faculty,” he said. “The idea is to put our research faculty in closer contact with the corporate world. The main aim of the research park is to enhance high-technology-based economic development.”

 
 
Biotechnology Employment in Rhode Island, 2006
Firms
Employment
Total Wages
Average Wage
Total Private Sector employment
35,231
417,597
$16,196,612,035
$38,785
Biotechnology Cluster
150
3,777
$261,868,269
$69,332
Research Development in Physical, Engineering & Life Sciences
98
826
$57,454,885
$69,558
Labs for DNA Testing, Toxicology, Blood Analysis, Forensic Testing
18
381
$15,768,899
$41,388
Pharmaceutical & Medicine Manufacturing
16
1,884
$152,086,598
$80,725
Surgical Appliance & Instrument Manufacturing
8
442
$26,496,742
$59,947
Electromedical Manufacturing
6
153
$5,181,784
$33,868
Analytical Laboratory Instrument & Irradiation ApparatusManufacturing
4
91
$4,879,361
$53,619
SOURCE: Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, “Employment Bulletin,” April 2007.
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