Biotech boom centered in West

The western region of the United States is uniquely positioned to lead a 21st century global revolution in biotechnology. Biotech innovation will drive economic growth. It will change the way we fight disease, grow crops and achieve a clean and safe environment.

These are some of the punch lines of Biotech Century Dawns in the Western U.S., a new report published by the Center for the New West, the think tank where I make my professional home.

An eight-state region of the West harbors more biotechnology companies than any other region of the world. Five of the world’s seven largest biotech companies are headquartered in the West. These include the California-based Amgen, Chiron, Genetech and Alza and Seattle-based Immunex.

New Mexico is a hub for research on the human genome project, a nationwide initiative managed by the National Institutes of Health to map and characterize all the genes and biological building blocks that make up the human being.

Utah is a center for biomedical research, home of the Huntsman Cancer Research Center and host to more than 200 biotech companies.

Arizona’s 80-plus biotech companies include world leaders in the development of medical imaging systems that integrate biotech with the optical sciences.

Oregon hosts more than 75 biotech companies, including the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center.

Thousands of smaller biotech firms and laboratories located throughout the West employ tens of thousands highly-paid workers in jobs ranging from the development of cancer vaccines and medical devices to genetic research and insect-resistant agricultural products. According to the report, more than 160,000 workers are employed in biotech in California, 19,000 in Colorado, 13,000 in Washington and 10,000 in Utah. Biotech employment in the West is growing rapidly and its workers are among the best paid workers in the U.S.

There are many reasons why the West is a global leader in biotechnology. These include an unmatched chain of “critical mass” knowledge workers and research facilities, stretching from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, the nation’s largest cancer research institute, to the National Center for Genome Research in Santa Fe; an ample supply of venture capital, at least compared to other regions of the U.S. and the world; and a unique mix of natural and cultural amenities that make it easier to attract and retain highly-qualified biotech professionals who move around in a seller’s market. One result: According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, nearly 85 percent of all new drugs are developed in the U.S.

But the report’s author, Frederick Bolin, also warns that short-sighted regulatory, tax and other public policies could jeopardize U.S. chances to reap the economic benefits of a global biotechnology boom. Example: Slow approval of new medicines by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration increases costs and often leads to the introduction of promising new drugs in Europe even though they were invented in the U.S. Another example: Well-meaning but poorly written legislation to protect genetic privacy or to prohibit human cloning, important objectives for most Americans, could threaten promising cancer research or even the processing of DNA in police investigations of murders or rapes. One solution: Policymakers need to work with biotech industry researchers when drafting legislation.

Nevertheless, as things now stand, the West’s biotech industry enjoys a special synergy of brains, bucks and entrepreneurship. If this combination continues, the center of gravity of the biotech century is likely to be located in the American West, where its economic impact will be substantial.

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