Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Biotech Is Making Life Better In Virginia

Op-Ed by Mark Herzog, printed in the Virginia Gazette and the Daily Press

Virginia's bioscience leaders met this week in Williamsburg to discuss the opportunities and challenges facing health care, public policy and biomedical innovation in the commonwealth. For more than 20 years, biomedical innovators across our state have pursued a shared passion to help their fellow citizens live longer, healthier lives.

All across the commonwealth, dedicated researchers in nearly 200 biotechnology and medical device firms are expanding the frontiers of modern medicine. They are pioneering new drugs, more effective therapeutics and life-saving medical devices

Virginia companies have developed nearly 80 marketable biotechnology products, with another 50 or so undergoing the arduous process of clinical trials.

Clearly, biotechnology has asserted itself as a vital contributor to Virginia's economic growth.

According to the Battelle/BIO State Biosciences Initiatives 2010 report, from 2001 to 2008, bioscience employment in Virginia grew by 23 percent, compared to 6 percent total growth statewide and 3.5 percent across all sectors in the U.S.

In Virginia alone, biotechnology organizations directly employ more than 20,000 people. Indirectly through suppliers, vendors and services-related companies, Virginia's biotechnology industry employs nearly 80,000 people. All told, Virginia's biotech sector generated products and services valued at more than $13 billion in 2008.

Underlying this hopeful news are some potentially worrisome issues. Like many states, Virginia's educational requirements need to be reviewed, particularly to get more students prepared for careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. A state's concentration of STEM graduates generally is considered to be a bellwether of its future ability to compete for jobs and economic growth, especially in the global economy. In fact, a recent study notes that Virginia is one of only 17 states without a biology requirement for high school graduation (biology is one of three laboratory options).

On the surface, Virginia's biotech sector seems to match up well in terms of the percentage of research and development activity taking place at state academic institutions like the College of William and Mary, Eastern Virginia Medical School and Old Dominion University. In fiscal year 2008, of the $70.55 billion in total academic funding nationwide, more than $550 million was allocated to biosciences research in Virginia.

That's good enough to place Virginia in the top 20, but it also points up how far the commonwealth has to go. Virginia is bookended by two states — North Carolina and Maryland — that rank fifth and sixth in the nation, respectively. In short, state policy-makers and the research community must take action now to gain full advantage of future growth in the life sciences industry.

Seeking to capitalize on the nucleus of innovative research-based companies, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell earlier this year signed into law the Virginia Refundable Research & Development Tax Credit, which recognizes the enormous upfront expenses emerging advanced-technology companies typically absorb during the arduous journey of bringing cutting-edge products and services to market.

The refundable aspect of the tax credit gives cash-strapped bioscience companies more elbow room to pursue their innovative ideas without having to worry quite as much about meeting expenses before revenue comes rolling in.

The new legislation complements the Virginia Innovation Investment Act, enacted in 2010. That initiative rewards Virginians who invest in advanced technology companies with a full exclusion from capital-gains taxes if an investment is made in the next three years.

Biotechnology-driven advances are saving lives or managing diseases every day for millions around the world. Biotech treatments have increased life expectancy for cancer patients by three years since 1980. Three years may not sound like much, but if you're a parent it can seem like a new lease on life — it may be just enough time to watch a grandchild graduate from college or walk a daughter down the aisle on her wedding day.

Like their counterparts nationally, these are the ideals that animate the ambitious, innovative and driven people who are the face of Virginia's burgeoning biotechnology cluster.

Herzog is the executive director of the Virginia Biotechnology Association.

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