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Posted: January 27, 2009

State makes push for bioscience

Industry could have long-term potential for Colorado, despite current funding slump

Dan Ray

In the midst of historic economic collapse, one of the key questions policymakers and entrepreneurs are asking is, "What pillars are left standing?"

At the state Capitol last Friday, Gov. Bill Ritter stood between a half-dozen marble pillars as he spoke of a future economic pillar: bioscience. Ritter, along with representatives of the Colorado BioScience Association, identified the industry as a possible source of widespread stabilization. At the day's event, titled "BioScience Day at the Capitol," research scientists, businesspeople and government officials convened for networking, bioscience news and a vision for the future. This vision was unveiled as the “Colorado Bioscience Roadmap 2008,” prepared by Battelle's Technology Partnership Practice for the CBSA.

"Bioscience is no longer a fledgling industry," Ritter said during a press conference to formally introduce the plan. "It is an economic driver, vital toward recovering from the economic downturn. Like aerospace and the renewables industries, bioscience is one of the pillars of our strategy for recovery." According to the Roadmap, Colorado ranked 11th in the nation for bioscience venture capital investments between 2002 and 2007. Perhaps even more impressive is that over the same time period the state's bioscience industry grew by 5.5 percent, faster than the national average of 3.1 percent.

About 18,000 people were employed in bioscience statewide in 2006, according to the report. While the Denver Metro region ranks 19th among U.S. cities in the medical devices sector, Boulder ranks first in its concentration of employment in this same sector.
In Colorado, bioscience is an industry that continues to expand, despite declines in other areas, Ritter said. "And more growth is coming yet," he said. "Even more growth than we've experienced over the last five years."

The cause for such optimism is not simply the favorable rankings, said John Collar, executive director of the CBSA. It is the active collaboration of scientists, private industry and the state government that truly makes Colorado attractive to bioscience.
"Just 15 years ago an effort like this probably never would have happened," Collar said. The Roadmap underscores five ingredients needed for transforming Colorado into a permanent leader in the bioscience industry:

1)    Greater availability of capital.
2)    Effective technology transfer efforts out of universities.
3)    Strengthening of the bioscience work force.
4)    Worldwide promotion of Colorado as a leader in the field.
5)    Long-term commitments from the government and private sector.

Maybe the most pressing issue will be attracting enough capital, Collar said: "Capital is the lifeblood of new economies moving forward.”
According to the report, a chief reason why Colorado has experienced something of a bioscience boom, relative to other states, is the widespread availability of quality scientists and research institutions – not, necessarily, the rate of capital investments. "Capital has been lacking," said Jack Wheeler, founder of MicroPhage and chairman of the CBSA. "We have a successful industry because we have good scientists and entrepreneurs."

Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., addressed the issue during a talk he gave last week as part of the Vectra Bank Colorado 2009 economic forecast breakfast in Denver. Clark referred to a downturn in funding for bioscience as a “nuclear winter,” saying the sector is going through a two-year slump and will continue to have difficulty attracting investment.
“Money is not moving in that direction,” Clark said. The state will likely take steps in the next year to help bioscience overcome this significant hurdle. The Roadmap outlines plans for the creation of a refundable or transferable research and development tax credit for bioscience companies, as well as a tax policy to encourage investment by angel investors. "I think you're going to see a bill come through and signed by congress this year," Ritter said. "We really need to have a place that creates a friendly environment."

The Roadmap comes as the result of the 2003 “Action Plan to Grow Colorado's Bioscience Cluster,” which was also prepared by Battelle's Technology Partnership Practice. That plan emphasized the need for a cross-institutional association aimed at bringing cohesion to bioscience – which spans 920 different establishments statewide. The CBSA was the result of this goal, and the Roadmap is its first significant contribution toward creating a cohesive bioscience sector. Rep. Jim Riesberg, D-Greeley, also voiced his support for future efforts to strengthen the bioscience industry in Colorado. "We need to grow jobs in our state and keep them in Colorado," Riesberg said. Colorado is lucky to have institutions like the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, he said. These institutions provide opportunities to inspire, train and keep valuable bioscience workers throughout their education and careers. "Much of the research I don't understand," Riesberg said. "But what I do understand is the importance of the industry for Colorado's future."

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Dan Ray is a graduate student at the University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication. 

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