Difficulty recruiting engineers to New Mexico was one of the reasons Bill Gates and Paul Allen moved their fledgling computer-software company from a strip mall next to a massage parlor in Albuquerque to Bellevue, Washington, on Jan. 1, 1979.
That lack of a skilled workforce remains a challenge today as New Mexico tries to attract and grow new industries in order to diversify its oil-and-gas and government-spending dependent economy.
(Reminder: 20% of New Mexico’s GDP is from government and 17% is from natural resource extraction.)
Another challenge is lack of capital for startups and, more importantly, money and support to allow them to grow here in New Mexico.
If we are ever to wean our economy off federal handouts and O&G, we must address those challenges.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham laid out an ambitious agenda in her State of the State speech last week. Her proposals include providing child care and early childhood education to every N.M. family, creating a New Mexico Health Care Authority to consolidate services in one agency and move the state closer to universal health care, picking up the full health care premiums of teachers and school employees, and funding increases for environmental protection, rural health care and housing initiatives.
It’s a bold agenda, particularly for a state with a declining population, where annual deaths outnumbered births by about 4,300 from July 2021 through July 2022 and which suffers from persistent “brain drain” as many of our best and brightest leave the state for work.
We would argue the state should pull out the 2021 plan by the state Economic Development Department, which lists nine target industries for the state to actively pursue: aerospace; biosciences; cybersecurity; film and television; outdoor recreation; sustainable and value-added agriculture; intelligent manufacturing; global trade; and sustainable and green energy.
The plan stresses aligning our higher education system with the needs of these target industries. And that means more investment in STEM programs and education. The EDD plan points out that many of “New Mexico’s higher education and training institutions are increasingly disconnected from the needs of industry… New Mexico’s higher education system is increasingly producing graduates in non-STEM fields.”
The plan also supports building capacity among the state’s entrepreneurs by removing barriers to financial resources, sustaining an entrepreneur-friendly business environment and connecting entrepreneurs to critical industry knowledge and resources.
One area mentioned in the plan that appears especially promising is our burgeoning bioscience sector — which includes a broad array of medical-related products and services, biotechnology for agricultural production, and environmental improvement.
Thanks to entrepreneurial creativity and continuous innovation and discovery at the state’s research universities and labs, N.M. scientists in the past 10 years have formed nearly 150 bioscience startup companies that are working to turn innovative technologies developed right here into new products and services.
The University of New Mexico has become a hotbed for health-related startups working to commercialize new medical devices, diagnostic tools and therapeutics. New Mexico State University and New Mexico Tech are also spinning out bioscience startups based on their research and engineering specialties.
Some success stories from our research universities are BennuBio, an Albuquerque company that’s marketing superfast cytometers, or cell meters, for medical diagnostics; WaveFront Dynamics, or WaveDyn, which built a specialized eye-measurement machine to help customize sight correction for difficult-to-treat patients; and Nature’s Toolbox, or NTxBio, which created technology to rapidly make new vaccines and drugs based on processes originally licensed from Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Two homegrown firms — Santa Fe-based OpenEye Scientific, a molecular design and modeling software company, and Twistle, an Albuquerque-based company that built a patient-engagement system to link health care teams directly with patients through automated communication — were recently acquired by large corporations.
For those acquisitions to benefit New Mexico, we need startups to stay here during and after their breakout growth. And for that to occur, New Mexico needs to make sure it has a business-friendly environment that includes transforming its tax code, a skilled-up workforce and smart investing in our local talent.
Dale Dekker, board chair of the state Bioscience Authority, presented a proposal to state legislators last year that includes investing $60 million a year for the next five years in K-12 STEM education, $60 million a year for five years in community colleges, $10 million a year for five years in our research and development universities, and $300 million in co-investment funds for target industries that require a next-generation manufacturing workforce.
The strategic investment plan is aimed at building the diverse and robust workforce New Mexico needs to attract and keeping and growing our next big industries, while building world-class engineering and computer science programs at our three research universities.
The governor’s agenda focuses on her vision for what New Mexicans need today. It also should build the framework for our economy of the future.
With $3.6 billion in new money, now is the time to invest in New Mexico’s economic tomorrow — one that will attract and retain its future generations.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.