Thursday, November 16, 2006

West Virginia's Biotech Vision 2015

An article about WV's plans for tech-based economic development...

West Virginia enters biotech race
Deven Swartz
Posted: 11/16/06
As states across the United States are beginning to bank their futures on the potentially unlimited possibilities of biotechnology, West Virginia feels it has no other choice but to enter the competition.

The state government has invested $4 million in Technology-Based Economic Development to date. TBED is a program that calls for postsecondary research institutions to stimulate a region's economy by creating state-of-the-art inventions, mainly in the biotechnology field.

The state's TBED proposal, Vision 2015, calls for a state investment of $250 million by 2015. Governor Joe Manchin has publicly spoken in support of the proposal and TBED in general, and proponents are currently touring the state to try to build enough legislative support to pass the proposal.

The state received $60 million from the federal government for TBED activities as of 2005, which proposal literature considers below the national average. However, the state received its largest grant, $9 million, from the National Science Foundation in July. All the money from the grant was earmarked for Marshall University research.

The goal would increase the amount of federal funding to more than $120 million by 2010 and $220 million by 2015.

Proponents of Vision 2015 point out that every federal dollar invested in TBED will yield $7 in revenue. However, a Web site at the University of Louisville, a member of Kentucky's TBED program, states that each federal dollar invested has yielded $3 in revenue.

The proposal also includes recruiting 89 new scientists and engineers to the state. West Virginia University would get 63 of the scientists, and Marshall University would receive 26.

Start-up costs for the new scientists and engineers would be close to $40 million, and the universities would be collectively paying out more than $8 million per year in salaries and fringe benefits. The universities' base budgets would need to be increased beginning in 2008 in order to compensate for possible salary increases, according to the proposal.

Vision 2015 also calls for the construction of two minimum 100,000 square-foot facilities-one at Marshall and the other at West Virginia University-by 2010. More than $120 million must be raised in order to pay for both buildings, and the proposal sets a December 2007 deadline to obtain the funding.

Marshall would be getting a science and engineering building meant to complement the $48 million Robert C. Byrd Biotechnology Science Center, which was dedicated in August. The biotech center had been in the planning stages since the late 1990s and was initiated by former Marshall President J. Wade Gilley, Dr. Howard Aulick, Marshall vice president for research, said.

Two other major items in the proposal include increasing the production of scientists and engineers already in the state, as well as developing new tech-based businesses.

If Vision 2015 is completed as proposed, it will create 33,000 jobs and have a total economic impact of more than $3 billion, according to proposal literature.

"If we don't do this now, Ohio will recruit our best researchers or Kentucky will," Aulick said.

Looking at TBED investments made in neighboring states, West Virginia is years behind. Kentucky, through the Bucks for Brains project, has invested $300 million in state funding into TBED since 1997. Ohio's TBED project, Third Frontier, has received $300 million from the state to date as well, but it started funding the project only three years ago. The state will invest a total of $1.1 billion in the project by 2013.

Because neighboring states have already made large-scale investments into TBED, some wonder if West Virginia has entered the marketplace too late to compete effectively.

"Every university in the nation is making the same bet, and many are better equipped and located to succeed in (biotechnology)," one person said in a message on the open comment section of the Marshall Strategic Vision Web site.

Aulick said he has heard this argument before. However, because West Virginia's TBED projects and investments will focus on health problems of major importance in Appalachia, the state will have its own competitive advantage, Aulick said.

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