Copyright Â© 2018 Albuquerque Journal
BennuBio, the latest Albuquerque startup to win state-backed venture funding, is riding a surge in local efforts to turn New Mexico into a national hub for biotechnology.
The company recently won a $1.5 million investment in August from Tramway Venture Partners and Cottonwood Technology to market a new University of New Mexico breakthrough that could accelerate tissue processing rates for research clinics and pharmaceutical companies by up to 100-fold.
Both investment firms are deploying money from the stateâ€™s newly developed Catalyst Fund, which the government launched last year to channel more money to early-stage startups marketing promising, homegrown technologies.
The latest investment in BennuBio is part of a statewide push to build public-private strategies that can promote economic development through entrepreneurial innovation that draws on the stateâ€™s high-tech prowess in key areas. That includes biotechnology, optics and photonics, information technology, and aviation and aerospace.
In biotechnology, such efforts are burgeoning into a foundational base, or industry cluster, that could turn New Mexicoâ€™s innovative life science arena into a center of excellence with stable, high-paying jobs, said Dr. Richard Larson, executive vice chancellor at UNMâ€™s Health Sciences Center.
â€śWe have all the fundamental elements in place now to grow a robust bioscience industry in New Mexico,â€ť Larson said. â€śItâ€™s one of the few industry clusters where weâ€™ve managed to bring all the pieces together to move forward.â€ť
Those pieces include research at the stateâ€™s universities and national labs, aggressive efforts to commercialize new products and services, a fledgling but growing investment community, and business accelerators and incubators to help entrepreneurs launch successful companies. It also includes trade organizations to promote industry through networking and education, plus collaboration among public and private entities to coordinate industry-building strategies.
All those elements have come together through a GrowBio initiative that bioscience business and research leaders launched in 2016, leading to legislative approval last year for a new public-private Bioscience Authority to spearhead statewide efforts.
â€śThe Bioscience Authority can facilitate efforts to get all the industry pieces working together to leverage public and private funding and cooperation,â€ť said Larson, now chairman and president of the authority.
Such cluster-building efforts arenâ€™t new, but theyâ€™re gaining momentum as business leaders, economic development organizations and public officials work to strengthen New Mexicoâ€™s startup economy. Technology transfer from the stateâ€™s labs and research universities is a critical part of those efforts, said Economic Development Secretary Matt Geisel.
â€śWeâ€™ve all heard that the opportunity, or secret sauce for building the innovation economy is by tapping into all the research and development at New Mexicoâ€™s labs and universities to commercialize new technologies,â€ť Geisel said. â€śThatâ€™s now happening in New Mexico with a real emergence and convergence of technology, human capital and financial resources.â€ť
The Innovate ABQ high-tech development district in Downtown Albuquerque is a key catalyst for those efforts. Itâ€™s helped merge researchers and professionals from the labs and universities with investors and businesspeople.
In addition, the stateâ€™s Catalyst Fund, plus government assistance through the Local Economic Development Act and New Mexicoâ€™s Job Training Incentive Program, are helping companies launch and expand, Geisel said.
That economic infrastructure is directly boosting the GrowBio initiative, and it could spur more development in the stateâ€™s other high-tech industry sectors.
Optics and Photonics
In optics and photonics, or light-based technologies, many breakthrough innovations have emerged from the stateâ€™s universities and national labs, leading to new detectors, sensors, lasers, lenses and mirrors that are used in a broad array of applications. That includes medical diagnostics and drug discovery, telecommunications, solar generation and more.
That, in turn, has generated a local manufacturing base with scores of companies supplying needed products and services, and startups working to market new technologies. A 2015 New Mexico Optics Association report showed about 100 optics and photonics firms now operate in New Mexico, accounting for 8 percent of all state manufacturing revenue, said Association Chair Jim McNally.
â€śWe have a huge base of optics technology expertise,â€ť McNally said. â€śMany companies are growing here without any special public incentives or impetus.â€ť
New companies continue to emerge, such as OptiPulse Inc., which is marketing innovative laser chips for telecommunications that could speed wireless internet networks by up to 100-fold. And established firms are aggressively expanding. SolAero Technologies Corp., for example, which builds solar cells and panels for satellites and spacecraft, recently completed a $10 million upgrade to its Albuquerque facility.
The Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base provides impetus for industry growth, given its focus on directed energy and space technology. Itâ€™s now working to build new industry partnerships to accelerate technology development, offering more opportunities for New Mexico businesses, McNally said.
Aviation and aerospace
The aviation and aerospace industry could also benefit from cluster-building initiatives. Itâ€™s received less attention in recent years, in part because itâ€™s taken longer than other sectors to bounce back from the 2008 recession, said Aspen Avionics President and CEO John Uczekaj.
â€śThe industry as a whole is coming out of a prolonged downturn,â€ť Uczekaj said. â€śBut weâ€™re seeing the beginnings of a turnaround now that could drive more growth in New Mexico.â€ť
A 2012 New Mexico Aviation Aerospace Association report showed nearly 300 companies operate across the state with a $3.1 billion impact on the economy. But with an aging workforce, finding new talent is hard, said Association President Bill Shuert.
â€śWe need a more progressive path for students to get into the workforce to sustain companies and bring new ones to the state,â€ť Shuert said. â€śThatâ€™s our biggest problem.â€ť
The association is focused on motivating youth to study science, technology, engineering and math for careers in aviation. About 20,000 middle and high school students have attended itâ€™s annual STEM Expo since 2012.
But the industry needs more support.
â€śWe hold an annual aviation day at the Round House to talk with legislators on what they can do or are doing to support aviation,â€ť Shuert said. â€śBut most donâ€™t know whatâ€™s going on in aviation or understand its real impact on the state economy.â€ť
Still, companies continue to grow. CSI Aviation Inc., for example, is agressively expanding its medical flight business. Itâ€™s renovating a 37,000-square-foot hanger at the Albuquerque International Sunport with LEDA assistance and expects to double its workforce over the next decade.
The stateâ€™s latest cluster-building initiative, New Space NM, could also benefit the local aerospace industry, as well as optics and information technology companies.
The initiative is uniting public and private entities in an effort to build New Mexico into a national hub for space-related business. With global investment in space technology growing exponentially, the state has an unprecedented opportunity to launch new companies, expand existing ones, and attract more out-of-state firms, said Casey DeRaad, an initiative leader.
â€śThe emerging commercial space industry offers opportunities for all companies large and small, and we want to take advantage of it,â€ť DeRaad said. â€śGrow, expand and attract are the three guiding goals for our cluster strategy.â€ť
As public-private economic development initiatives gain force, New Mexico has a strong, foundational high-tech industry base to build on. Those include:
â€˘ About 700 biotech firms currently work in human health, agriculture and environmental issues across the state, according to a 2016 GrowBio industry report.
â€˘ They collectively generate about $1.2 billion in annual revenue.
â€˘ They directly employ about 9,300 people, and up to 41,000 if counting support jobs.
Optics and photonics
â€˘ Nearly 100 optics and photonics firms operate in New Mexico, about 81 percent of them in the Albuquerque metropolitan area, according to a 2015 New Mexico Optics Association report.
â€˘ They account for 8 percent of statewide manufacturing revenue, and 22 percent of manufacturing revenue in Bernalillo County.
â€˘ About 6,200 people are directly employed in the industry.
Aviation and aerospace
â€˘ Nearly 300 firms operate statewide, according to a 2012 study by the New Mexico Aviation Aerospace Association
â€˘ Overall, the industry contributes about $3.1 billion in annual economic activity.
â€˘ Nearly 7,000 people work at companies statewide, with another 6,000 employed at airports or in aviation-related businesses at airports.