Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Daily Progress: VA Needs to Focus on Biotech

In the University of Virginia, our Charlottesville region possesses one of the nation’s top teaching hospitals and one of the nation’s top business schools. For these reasons and more, our area already is doing well in biotech entrepreneurship.

But it could be positioned for even greater growth.

And the commonwealth as a whole would be smart to better support this important and growing industry, for the sake of economic and humanitarian advancement.

Biotech is a special industry, says Mark Herzog, executive director of the Virginia Biotechnology Association — both in its promise and in its needs.

Some of the most exciting innovations in science are occurring in this field, including in such areas as potential cures for cancers and bioremediation of pollution. When this research comes to fruition, the gains for humanity will be enormous.

Already, quality and longevity of life are being immensely improved by biotech advances.

Although biotech scientists generally pursue their research for love rather than riches, the economic benefits from biotech also can be substantial. And it is economic benefit to the community, more than to the individual, that brings the biggest payoff.

Biotech firms need highly trained workers, who can be highly paid for their special skills, and that money helps feed the local economy.

Biotech firms need support businesses — from accountants, to attorneys (working through red tape can take years) to advertising experts (to market successful products). Spinoff and support firms also contribute to the economy.

†Biotech firms also have special needs. In addition to specially trained workers, they also need specialized facilities, particularly wet labs. It is far more expensive to build these facilities than to construct typical office or manufacturing space.

Higher startup costs unfortunately often combine with delayed return on investment. It can take 20 years to bring a new drug to market — 20 years of meticulous research, testing and adhering to government regulations.

The rewards from biotech research can be huge — equally, the risks. Although some “angels” are attracted expressly to the excitement of bioscience, many venture capitalists don’t understand the unusual realities of the industry, or are unwilling to accept its uncertainties.

That means funding for promising new fields of research can be hard to come by.

It’s also why the statistic cited in the March 6 editorial is so important. Virginia is not just 50th, but 52nd — behind even Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia — in categories tracking changes in the amount of grant money our companies are able to attract from the National Institutes of Health. Even when public money is available, Virginia is doing a relatively poor job of pulling it in.

That’s just one measure of success, but it tells a vital part of the story.

Other states are forging ahead in biotech research — in fact, they are so far ahead that our own young scientists are leaving to pursue careers elsewhere.

With its nationally ranked universities, its ties to the defense industry and its proximity to Washington, Virginia could be — should be — a leader in bioscience. But Virginia must determine to capitalize on those resources and determine to add to them.

The risks of inaction are high; the rewards of success, virtually unlimited.

Editorial By The Daily Progress, Published: March 08, 2011

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