July 2, 2012

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Biotech Pioneers

From the Lab to the Factory to the Hospital, Utah Leads the Way in Life Sciences

Spencer Sutherland

July 2, 2012

While many companies have struggled throughout the years of a down-turned economy, Utah’s life science industry has found ways to not just stay afloat but to thrive.

“The life sciences industry in Utah has been growing for the last 10 years,” says Gary Harter,  Managing Director for Business Outreach for the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED). “In fact, there has never been a month that we’ve gone down in employment. It’s increasing employees month over month.”

That growth—thanks in no small part to industry heavyweights like Merit Medical, Fresenius and Edwards Lifescience—has totaled about 6,000 new jobs over the past decade. The 26,000 Utahns working in the life sciences sector now account for more than 2 percent of the state’s total workforce.

More important than the number of jobs is the type of jobs the industry creates. “Employees in this sector earn almost 45 percent more than the average Utah wage,” Harter says. “Because there is more money available to the employees, more money is pushed into the economy in the form of housing, discretionary spending and the arts. That’s a bonus for everyone.”

While tax incentives and a pro-technology state government have made Utah both a breeding ground and a relocation destination for all types of life science companies, the state’s culture of research, innovation and collaboration plays the biggest role in the industry’s enduring success.

Going Back to College
Idaho Technology is one of the many Utah-based companies that has a strong connection to the state’s universities. “We’re basically a University of Utah spin-out,” says Randy Rasmussen, President and COO of the pathogen identification and DNA analysis company.

Idaho Technology couldn’t resist the draw of being in Salt Lake, near the University. “The location—next to the University of Utah and the collaborators there, and the graduates coming out of the University of Utah and Brigham Young University—was really compelling,” Rasmussen says. “There’s a strong molecular program at the University that produces the sort of biochemists that we need to develop new products.”

One of those new products is called FilmArray, a human diagnostic tool used for determining respiratory infections. Because of its overwhelming success, Rasmussen says Idaho Technology is busy “hiring like crazy” to keep up with the demand.

“In the very recent past, only very highly complex laboratories could do DNA or RNA testing for viruses or bacteria,” Rasmussen explains. As a result, hospitals would have to send their patients’ samples to a central reference laboratory to be tested.

Idaho Technology wanted to simplify that process. “We came up with a system that can be run easily in the hospital labs by less-trained personnel,” Rasmussen says. “Now that sample, instead of having to go across town or to another state, can be tested right in the building while the patient waits. [That means] the patient can immediately get the results and then get a prescription, get admitted or get sent home, depending on what’s appropriate.”

The new product has not only caught the attention of hospitals but the science community as well In fact, FilmArray was recently ranked third on The Scientist magazine’s list of 2011’s top innovations. Idaho technology is also working on other easy-to-use tests used to determine the cause of blood poisoning and gastrointestinal disease.

Serving the Sector
With so many Utah companies manufacturing medical supplies, there becomes a real need for someone to supply the supplier. Salt Lake City-based Biomerics got its start manufacturing polymer solutions for large players in the market, including Bard Access Systems, BD Medical and Stryker.

“Our business started with these technologies and has grown into the leading OEM [original equipment manufacturer] in the state,” says Travis Sessions, President and CEO at Biomerics. “Today we operate a 95,000-square-foot facility and include compounding, molding, extrusion and assembly services.”

Biomerics’ client list has also grown over the years, and now the company manufacturers biomaterials and other products for many of the world's leading medical devices. “With operations in Utah and Rhode Island, over 150 medical companies depend on our technologies,” Session says.

That doesn’t mean that the company has lost track of its roots. Just this past year, Biomerics launched new products with several Utah companies, including Salt Lake City start-up Domain Surgical and Orem-based medical device manufacturer Aribex. These and other projects have helped Biomerics achieve double-digit growth each of the past three years and to continue to create new jobs.

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