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Demystifying Life Sciences for Economic Development

Demystifying Life Sciences for Economic DevelopmentThe life sciences industry has grown rapidly in the US and abroad thanks to exciting new technology and billions of dollars in investments over the last 5-10 years.

This article is for economic developers who want to understand better how to recognize related opportunities within their community and influence events so that they do not wake up one day and realize they have merely been passive observers of this significant moment in life sciences history instead of participants 

Embracing the Common Denominator

The common denominator between the life sciences and economic development is mutual curiosity. Professionals in both fields strongly desire to know and learn, and this curiosity drives discovery and fuels tenacity to clear hurdles and achieve results. It’s the DNA they share. 

Wherever there is curiosity, progress will follow. Curiosity is a process of asking questions and making connections, and economic developers and scientists excel at this. 

For example, when becoming aware of a new technology, each might ask, “How could this advance the field of bioinformatics or lead to efficiency improvements in biologics manufacturing?” When speaking with farmers about their agricultural needs, the economic developer could connect them with local partners, programs, or resources that will help them experiment with breeding methods that could someday increase bio-agricultural production. 

Economic developers help businesses make connections to solve problems and produce economic gains. By asking questions, they can connect a manufacturer in their community with engineers (applied sciences) who can conduct research and design for new medical equipment or find ways to change the structures and chemical compounds of materials used in manufacturing, yielding a new product that meets market demand. 

Economic developers do not need to be life science experts. Their job is to ask questions, find connections between worlds, make introductions, nurture a supportive ecosystem, and let innovation take its course. 

One Handshake Away

On any workday, economic developers can be a handshake away from meeting someone working in a lab or a supporting industry who will change the world. You never know. Tomorrow, you might meet the next Brigitte Askonas, Margaret Dayhoff, Jennifer Doudna, Rosalind Franklin, or Dorothy Hodgkin.[1]

These women lived in relative public obscurity, but their scientific contributions forever changed the world for the better.  

You don’t need to recognize genius on your next business or wet lab visit to see the future. Your role is to appreciate the possibilities of the discovery process and help establish the conditions for talent to flourish. 

Early in my career, when I led business development for the State of Maryland, I traveled to Scotland with National Institutes for Health officials. We met at the Roslin Institute to participate in signing a joint research accord. While there, we were introduced to Dolly the Sheep, the world’s first cloned animal.

The researchers spoke a genomics language I did not fully understand. They gave elaborate answers to my simple questions, and I did the same when asked about the economic development process, such as commercializing research activities.  

I returned stateside with a greater appreciation of my role in bringing people together and mitigating weaknesses in the economic ecosystem so bright minds can do their thing. I began by getting to know each biotech firm in the state.  

Working with Maryland’s technology corporation, I commissioned Johns Hopkins University researchers to do a genealogy of biotechnology firms. I remember saying, “We need to find their shared DNA.” The questions we were trying to answer were: Who were the founders of technology firms, and where did they come from? Did they know each other? Were there common threads between them? This involved getting out and knocking on doors. 

I met Dr. Craig Venter at Celera Genomics and was introduced to researchers doing fantastical things. I had no idea then that he and Dr. Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health would soon announce that their teams had successfully mapped the complete human genome. It was momentous, the life sciences equivalent of landing on the moon for the first time. 

For those of us in the economic development industry, this is a good example of how the importance of much of what we witness in our day-to-day work and experiences can be hidden. Sometimes, we can be blind to the bigger picture and take it all in stride. The people we come across, often unbeknownst to us, can impact the direction of entire industries, communities, or global humanity. We connect and get to know who’s doing what, but where it leads may never be known to us. 

Overnight Success is a Misnomer

The human genome project took nearly 25 years and at least $2.7 billion to complete before its announcement in 2003 by Drs. Venter and Collins and their teams. Almost 25 years later, we still can’t fathom where genomics research and commercialization will lead. Many expect and are hopeful that personalized medicine will revolutionize current healthcare systems and vastly improve human life. 

The life sciences and biotechnology are still in their infancy. Excluding hospitals, healthcare providers, and wholesalers, they represent a mere 1% of all jobs in the US. Still, they have grown faster over the past ten years (23% compared to 16%) and have significantly higher average earnings ($65,522 more per year) than the US average. 

So, maybe your community is not an established biotech hub like Boston, San Diego, San Francisco, Philadelphia/NJ, or the MD/DC/VA region (all developed over generations). Of course, we can’t clone success like that. But that doesn’t mean you can’t begin to position your community as a player for the “next big thing.” Lab scientists’ work requires tools, equipment, expertise, talent, resources, and services found in communities everywhere.  

Staking Your Ground in Life Sciences

The Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP) recently hired Camoin Associates to help develop a strategy for its MedTech industry. Lansing is the state capital. It is about an hour’s drive from Michigan’s other well-developed life science clusters: Research in Southeast Michigan/Ann Arbor, pharmaceutical manufacturing in Southwest Michigan/Kalamazoo, and leading medical institutions to the west in Grand Rapids. Lansing has been the proverbial hole in the donut, with plenty of amazing companies on their own, waiting for world recognition as part of a competitive cluster. What was its place in the life sciences? 

We shifted the conversation to building out the state’s core as the best way to expand specific Life Sciences subsectors and to do so in ways that complemented rather than competed with other areas of the state. Mid-Michigan did not have to choose one subsector over another; rather, it needed to find its niche by focusing its efforts on scaling the ecosystem, leveraging the power of its partnerships with higher education institutions, advancing discovery by linking interdisciplinary sciences, and filling gaps in the innovation cycle to boost commercialization.  

Leaders began to explore intersections between the physical and life sciences, such as leveraging a superconducting linear accelerator at Michigan State University as an integral asset for technology transfer.  

It’s working. In April of this year, LEAP announced the launch of a new industry-specific brand: Michigan’s Health Core. It is designed to accelerate life sciences and technology ideas into action, with Lansing at the center of the action.

The State of New Hampshire also turned to Camoin Associates for advice on how to grow and support its Life Sciences industry. While the state’s Life Sciences cluster had obvious and meaningful connections to Boston, the world’s largest Life Sciences cluster, there were distinct competitive factors that New Hampshire could promote and support to grow from within. How could New Hampshire leverage these connections to build out its Life Sciences industry and distinguish itself as a separate but connected part of that ecosystem 

Camoin Associates worked closely with State officials and industry partners to identify subindustries well-suited to growth trajectories:

  • Biotherapeutics
  • Quantitative biology/bioinformatics
  • MedTech/medical IT
  • Environmental/remote sensing

We also identified emerging sectors like advanced regenerative manufacturing where New Hampshire could differentiate itself.  

The planning efforts also helped to catalyze a life sciences industry association, New Hampshire Life Sciences (NHLS)Our recommendations included enhancing these emerging industry partnerships and fostering cross-industry networks focusing on workforce, talent, and entrepreneurship.  

The result of our industry assessment sparked renewed enthusiasm and a shared vision to partner across the life sciences ecosystem to take actionable steps toward discoveries, economic growth, and maybe even the next big medical breakthrough

Lessons in Discovery

Below are three key points for economic developers to remember as they seek to broaden opportunities in the life sciences: 

  1. The best way to converse with the scientific disciplines is through the common language of curiosity in a constant search to connect people and resources that advance the discovery process. 
  2. Research geniuses are everywhere, and a handful of clusters on the East and West coasts do not monopolize the Life Sciences industry; they and the product of their work can be discovered anywhere. 
  3. The industry’s gradual and natural growth over the last four decades represents a remarkable journey toward unimaginable progress. By never ceasing to ask questions and make connections, economic developers can discover unique economic opportunities for their community. 

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[1] Brigitte Askonas (monoclonal antibodies), Margaret Dayhoff (bioinformatics), Jennifer Doudna (CRISPR), Rosalind Franklin (molecular structure of DNA), Dorothy Hodgkin (structure of penicillin and insulin).