In 2003 Colorado set the wheels in motion to drive the growth of bioscience in the state. These wheels included an industry association, the Colorado BioScience Association; a leader, Denise Brown, and a blueprint, “Colorado’s Place in the Sun: A Bioscience Future.”
Now, two years after the state rolled out its plan, Larimer County is the first locality to put its own development strategy on paper.
Since January 2004, a group of industry executives, economic development professionals and Colorado State University representatives met once monthly in order to develop the Larimer County Bioscience Initiative Strategic Plan. The plan, disclosed earlier this month, builds on the Colorado plan, adapting many of the state efforts to fit with Northern Colorado.
The plan starts by identifying seven key factors to success in other bioscience clusters in the nation:
• Engaged universities with active leadership.
• An active and coordinated industry.
• Available capital.
• Talent pool.
• Specialized facilities and equipment.
• Supportive business climate.
• Patience and long-term perspective.
The Larimer County strategists used these factors to size up Northern Colorado as a bioscience contender (the bioscience industry includes four segments, including research and testing, drugs and pharmaceuticals, organic and agricultural chemicals and medical devices and instruments). The results: the region only qualifies in the featherweight category, but is still in the competition.
The first and most over-arching factor is the presence of a strong research university. “The anchor of everything we’re doing is CSU,´ said Eric Weber, COO of Gonex Inc. and member of the Bioscience Initiative group.
Fort Collins-based Gonex is one of the darlings of CSU’s tech transfer program. Gonex is a development stage company. The primary product for the company is a hormone-based technology that would replace traditional spay or neuter sterilization surgeries for companion animals with a single injection. The technology also has applications in treating humans with hormone-based cancers, such as prostate and breast cancers.
“We’re in the process of getting funding to move this through the FDA approval process,” Weber said.
For Gonex and many other startups, funding is the biggest issue to overcome. Bioscience companies are particularly dependent on venture capital and angel funding because it can take several years and a lot of money to launch one product.
“Funding for a small company is always an issue,´ said Richard Casey, founder of RMC Biosciences Inc. Fort Collins-based RMC provides bioinformatic services to pharmaceutical companies, including computer-aided drug design.
“Most of the investment community is based on the West or East coasts,” Casey said.
Geography can be an issue since most investors like to be physically close to their investments.
“You don’t need an ocean to create a bioscience cluster,” Gonex’s Weber said.
Larimer County’s bioscience plan reports there are about 30 venture capital funds in Colorado – a third of which invest in bioscience companies.
“The larger problem is the mindset in the Denver-Boulder area towards Fort Collins startups,” Weber said. Many investors overlook the region because it is seen as non-critical and its startups as less successful.
As for angel investors, individuals who invest in startup and early-stage companies, Northern Colorado is lacking an organized network to identify who they are. The plan reports that the underground network of angel investors is actually quite robust considering the size of the region.
Funding is only one of the issues that Northern Colorado needs to address to become a player in the bioscience arena.
The plan divulges four strategies:
• Improve the availability of funding for bioscience companies, especially seed and early stage assistance.
• Enhance the success rate of small or startup bioscience companies and support the needs of existing firms in the region.
• Support Colorado State University’s critical role in the regional and statewide bioscience effort. This includes maximizing the commercialization of bioscience discoveries at the university.
• Utilize the Northern Colorado Economic Development Corp.’s Leadership 2010 program that launches a five-year plan to revitalize the region’s economy.
A set of specific tactics accompanies each of the strategies.
One that carries through to many of the strategies is improved visibility.
“Much like the rest of the state, Northern Colorado isn’t seen as bioscience central,´ said Jerald Kuiken, CEO of CHATA Biosystems Inc. and member of the planning group.
CHATA, founded in 1997, manufactures blended chemistry for pharmaceutical companies and other industries. The companies use the chemistry for analysis, production and shipment. What sets CHATA apart is its patented flexible film bag – similar to a bag used to hold IV fluid. The bag allows for convenient shipping and storage and reduces the risk of contamination or decreased potency.
Kuiken explained that outside of the region, there is a false impression of an absent or nominal bioscience industry. In order to get on the map, the region needs to prove that it is the right place for bioscience to flourish.
Most of the media attention in the region focuses on the technology layoffs, and gives the impression of an exodus out of Northern Colorado, Kuiken said.
Part of increasing the visibility of the industry includes raising the visibility of the university.
“One of the challenges CSU and CSURF has is knowing who is out there and letting them know what we do,´ said Kathleen Henry, president and CEO of the Colorado State University Research Foundation. “It goes back to informing the community.”
CSURF is charged with transferring the technologies created by university research into the commercial realm.
“We’ve already had a fair amount of invention disclosures and spinoffs in the biosciences,” she said.
Part of the burden of raising visibility of the industry in general will land in the lap of the Northern Colorado EDC.
“We’re going to take the findings (of the plan) and network them out to interested parties,´ said J.J. Johnston, president and CEO of the Northern Colorado EDC. Johnston was also a part of the planning group.
Johnston said the Northern Colorado EDC is committed to bring in site selectors, host special events and conduct media tours that will visit local bioscience companies.
The organization is also conducting a workforce survey to determine the employment needs of the bioscience industry.
While the plan is a step in the right direction, Johnston said the region still has a lot of work ahead – a sentiment echoed by several of the plan’s co-authors.
“When you look at the companies that are here and solid, it’s a pretty short list,” he said. “In my mind we need to increase that number by 10 times to really start rocking and rolling on this.”
Some might say the “rocking and rolling” actually started back in October when Denise Brown, executive director for the CBSA, announced that she would maintain a satellite office at the Fort Collins Technology Incubator – the first satellite office for the CBSA in the state.
At any rate, the region and the state are focused on becoming a critical bioscience player.
Brian Vogt, director of Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade, said that bioscience could become a bubble that promises to never burst.
“The people of the world have an insatiable appetite for bioscience,” he said. “Bioscience is here to stay.”