Monday, March 07, 2011

Va Should Position For Growth

The greater Charlottesville region is home to more than 17 percent of the state’s biotech companies, based on information from the Virginia Bioscience Directory.

It contains more than 20 percent of the state’s bioscience equipment companies, nearly 18 percent of its medical device companies and nearly 17 percent of its bioenergy companies.

That’s a pretty good record — and it doesn’t even include firms in nearby Waynesboro and Staunton.

And it all adds to the local economy.

With much of this innovation sparked by the University of Virginia, the region is doing well in comparison with other parts of the state. But more could be accomplished.

And significantly more could be accomplished statewide if the commonwealth’s leadership would bring state policies up to speed in this emerging tech field.

That’s the view of Virginia Biotechnology Association Executive Director Mark A. Herzog. He was in Charlottesville last week for a biotech conference and took time out to speak with The Daily Progress editorial board. And he made a strong case for increased public support of biotechnology startups and homegrown companies.

First, a snapshot of where Virginia stands today in comparison with other states:

“When’s the last time you saw Virginia at the bottom of anybody’s list?” Mr. Herzog asked.

Well, there we are: 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. The figures from a Batelle study show that Virginia actually lost ground in those categories from 2004 to 2009.

It’s just one small part of the overall picture — but it’s a dramatic one, and deserves attention.

Here’s another startling statement: “We’ve become an incubator for other states’ bio industries,” says Mr. Herzog.

Too often, our people — UVa post-docs, for instance — cannot remain in the commonwealth because the jobs aren’t here, and the jobs often aren’t here because the venture capital for exciting new startup companies comes from out of state.

In other words, Virginia might be producing brilliant researchers who have world-class ideas for new medical drugs or new biofuels, but we are not always providing an environment that allows them to develop their ideas and take them to market. We are not completing the loop. And when they must export their ideas elsewhere, Virginia experiences the ill effects of brain drain and lost economic opportunities.

Clearly, the Charlottesville region isn’t doing too badly, with its relatively high percentage of biotech companies. But imagine how much more powerful that economic engine could be if the state provided the right tools for growing it.

Some of the world’s most exciting — and humanitarian — innovations are occurring in this field. And Virginia should position itself to be an integral part of these advances.

The Daily Progress

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