Rosy future seen for Tucson biotech

Existing labs, talent pool called a recipe for growth
2011-02-05T00:00:00Z Rosy future seen for Tucson biotechRikki Mitchell Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 05, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Tucson's biosciences sector is expected to grow as companies like Ventana Medical Systems/Roche add jobs and boost the industry overall, says the latest industry update by the Battelle Technology Partnership Practice.

Commissioned by the Phoenix-based Flinn Foundation, Battelle's study found that during the recessionary years of 2008-2009, bioscience jobs in Arizona increased by 7 percent, while Arizona overall lost 11 percent of its jobs.

In Tucson, job growth in research, testing and medical laboratories grew by 33 percent from 2002 to 2009. Tucson's hospital jobs grew by 20 percent.

Arizona is moving toward getting more respect nationally for its bioscience firms, and Tucson is a big part of that with companies like Ventana Medical Systems/Roche, said Walter Plosila, senior adviser to the Battelle Technology Partnership Practice.

Ventana, founded in 1985 on technology developed by University of Arizona pathology professor Dr. Thomas Grogan, has kept growing after being acquired in 2008 by Swiss drug giant Roche.

Ventana, which makes lab instruments for tissue analysis, plans an expansion to its Oro Valley campus that will add 500 new jobs in the next five years, increasing the company's work force by more than 50 percent.

"People see there's a talent pool here, there's other companies here … it becomes exponential growth," said Plosila.

T.J. Johnson, CEO of Tucson-based High Throughput Genomics, said Ventana's success story gives other Tucson bioscience companies more leverage, which will help continue to boost job growth.

"When you can refer back to success stories like that, it just brings immediate credibility to your ability to attract talent and to attract capital dollars and investors," he said. "We have to use that to build the next success stories."

Johnson said his company, which develops research technologies and tests for diseases like cancer, grew by more than 100 percent in 2010 and he wants to double its growth every year.

Plosila also said Tucson stands out from the rest of Arizona in its research and testing firms.

Tucson added 28 new bioscience firms since 2002, bringing the total number to 71.

In addition to new firms, Plosila said Tucson played a major role in the 65-percent increase of funding to Arizona from the National Institutes of Health, which included one-time federal stimulus funding.

In the last three years, he noted, the University of Arizona increased its NIH funding by 24 percent.

"Given all the competition nationally, that's pretty amazing," said Plosila.

He said if Arizona as a state hopes to continue increasing its NIH funding, the UA will have to lead the way.

Coming out of the recession, Plosila said, the biosciences industry has many opportunities to grow. The challenges come when trying to find the money to sustain growth.

Overall, Arizona's risk capital - venture capital and other private equity investment - decreased 84 percent from 2002-2010.

"The capital markets are still a major impediment," he said. "They've got the ideas, they've got the talent; they just need the money."

Plosila said if these capital needs can be addressed, "things are very rosy for Southern Arizona."

By the numbers

33 percent

Job growth in Tucson's research, testing and medical laboratories from 2002 to 2009

20 percent

Growth in Tucson's hospital jobs in that period

Source: Battelle Technology Partnership Practice

Rikki Mitchell is a University of Arizona journalism student and a NASA Space Grant intern. Contact her at rmitchell@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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