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Turning New Mexico into a biotech powerhouse

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico’s bioscience research and business leaders are launching a new statewide initiative today to accelerate the state’s burgeoning biotechnology industry.

Dr. Federica Pericle, president and CWO of Agilvax, works with measurement devices at a laboratory at the Bioscience Center in Uptown Albuquerque, where the company is based. (Kevin Robinson-Avila / Albuquerque Journal)

Dr. Federica Pericle, president and CWO of Agilvax, works with measurement devices at a laboratory at the Bioscience Center in Uptown Albuquerque, where the company is based. (Kevin Robinson-Avila / Albuquerque Journal)

The GrowBio initiative aims to unite the public and private sectors around policies and incentives that could turn New Mexico’s biotechnology activity into a national powerhouse for new entrepreneurial endeavors, said Dr. Richard Larson, executive vice chancellor at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center.

Larson is a key leader in the effort, which has already produced a comprehensive report on New Mexico’s current biotechnology development and recommendations to grow it.

“We’ve already created the foundations for a strong bioscience industry in New Mexico, but we’re at the stage where the state and private sector must work together on policies and incentives to move a lot more discoveries from lab to market to help biotechnology startups grow and thrive,” Larson said. “We want to lead the effort because, apart from oil and gas, biotechnology represents one of New Mexico’s best growth areas for economic development and jobs.”

New Mexico’s biotechnology businesses have grown rapidly in recent years, generating about $1.2 billion in revenue in 2015, according to the report. That reflects the vibrant research underway at the state’s national laboratories and universities, plus aggressive efforts in the past decade to commercialize new products and services.

NanoMR scientist Magdalena Torrance uses a pipette to set up a polymerase chain reaction in a clinical testing lab at nanoMR in January 2013. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham / Albuquerque Journal)

NanoMR scientist Magdalena Torrance uses a pipette to set up a polymerase chain reaction in a clinical testing lab at nanoMR in January 2013. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham / Albuquerque Journal)

Some 700 biotech companies now work in human health, agriculture and environmental issues around the state. That includes new medical devices, diagnostic tools and treatments, as well as improved methods and tools for food production and safety, and innovative use of microbes and enzymes to make manufacturing and chemical processes environmentally friendly.

Those businesses directly employ about 9,300 people, and up to 41,000 if related support jobs are included. That represents about 7 percent of all New Mexico’s private sector jobs, according to the report.

And those are generally high-paying jobs that often don’t require advanced degrees, Larson said.

“With bioscience, people think it’s all high-tech jobs and graduate degrees, but most of these positions are associate’s and bachelor’s degrees,” Larson said. “That means growing the industry could have a substantial impact on jobs for younger people.”

Most biotech businesses are concentrated in high-population centers, such as Bernalillo, Santa Fe and Doña Ana counties. A few large companies also dominate the employment landscape, such as Tricore Reference Laboratories in Albuquerque with more than 1,000 employees and Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute with 500.

The state’s vibrant startup environment has led to a crop of new companies seeking to develop and market new technologies.

UNM is especially prolific, with 38 biotech startups launched since 2004. Some are particularly successful, such as the Albuquerque-based medical diagnostic firm IntelliCyt Corp., which a German firm acquired in June for $90 million, but which continues to operate here with more than 50 employees.

Still, given the wealth of research at New Mexico’s labs and universities, a lot more could be done, said Stuart Rose, a pharmaceutical industry veteran, serial entrepreneur and founder of the Bioscience Center in Uptown Albuquerque, which houses about 20 biotech firms.

“We have huge opportunities to grow the biotech sector, but we need to educate more government officials and legislators about it,” Rose said. “We need to get the statewide community on board about our potential.”

In particular, state and local governments need to work closely with businesspeople and research institutes on targeted tax incentives and more funding opportunities for research and commercial ventures, according to GrowBio. The report specifically urges the state to build a specialized, collaborative economic development focus on bioscience, creating a New Mexico Bioscience Authority to help unify and build the industry cluster.

“This is just the beginning,” said Greg Byrnes, executive director of the N.M. Biotechnology and Biomedical Association. “We want to market this information to state officials and others to provide incentives to grow the industry. We believe this could lead to a lot more technology transfer from our labs and universities.”

It will take a firm public-private sector partnership to do that, said Dale Dekker, founding principal at Dekker/Perich/Sabatini, who helped create the GrowBio initiative.

“We need to look to the future to position our community, and our world-class scientists and researchers to help build our economy,” Dekker said. “This seems like one of those areas everybody can get behind. It could have a huge impact.”

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