June 1, 2012

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Chain Reaction

Success Leads to Greater Success in Utah’s Life Science Industry

Heather Stewart

June 1, 2012

Utah is a hot spot for life science research and businesses—and it’s only getting hotter. Utah Business recently asked Michael Feldman, Ph.D., development director at MD4 Utah, to reflect on the state of the life science industry in Utah.

Why do so many life science companies start up in Utah?
With a mature medical device industry, a strong leadership position in the personalized healthcare movement and the highest concentration of dietary supplement companies in the country, Utah has a solid life science foundation. Utah is also fortunate to have three great universities—the University of Utah, Brigham Young University and Utah State University—which generate a wealth of unique ideas that can be developed and commercialized into products and companies. All three universities have also developed best-in-class technology commercialization programs. 

The Utah Science, Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR) is also playing a significant and growing role. USTAR has recruited top scientist to Utah’s universities to develop technologies that have led to a significant number of patents and created hundreds of jobs, while also providing world-class research facilities at the U and USU that facilitate creative thinking and innovative research. The state-funded Technology Commercialization and Innovation Program (TCIP) provides needed resources to help emerging companies develop to a sustainable level.

What factors contribute to a supportive environment?
Utah has three critical factors that support new company creation: 1) An academic system that provides the necessary scientific and technological knowledge base for a technology-based economy; 2) a growing industry that has an increasing need for innovative companies and new employees and 3) a supportive government that creates an entrepreneurial environment where new companies can thrive.

The Utah System of Higher Education has recently completed a study to identify the needs and requirements of growing Utah’s life science industry—the Utah Cluster Acceleration Partnership for Life Science (UCAP-LS). This report will provide significant direction for growing Utah’s life science industries, from the established medical device industry to the strong, emerging diagnostics industry and the nascent biotech and specialty pharma space.

What challenges do companies face in building a successful, long-term life sciences company here?
As in most communities, the key to an industry’s success is finding the life blood of investment and human capital. Utah is no different. Utah generally competes with a smaller resource base than larger states, many of which are willing to find novel ways of providing funds for life science industry development. Finding and recruiting the right kind of executive entrepreneurs has been challenging, but seems to be improving in Utah.

How have government initiatives, such as USTAR and the Fund of Funds, helped or hindered the industry?
USTAR has definitely helped provide physical and financial resources to attract top talent to the state, which has contributed dramatically to our commercialization successes through the development of intellectual property, company and job creation.

The jury is still out on how much the Fund of Funds has helped and will help grow Utah’s life science sector. The Fund is currently facing some internal challenges, driven by tough conditions in the national VC/private equity marketplace. The UCAP initiative should have a significant positive impact for USTAR, the Fund of Funds and other Utah programs.

Are Utah companies successful in attracting expertise in the later stages of development such as clinical trials, pharmaceutical manufacturing, etc?
Utah actually has a number of clinical research organizations here, although many times work is contracted out of state. The numerous medical device companies here have sophisticated regulatory, quality and clinical capabilities. We have two pharmaceutical manufacturing companies (Watson and Cephalon) with great depth of talent. However, our drug discovery capabilities have not yet approached reaching their potential.

What would help bring this type of expertise to Utah?
Recruiting a few major pharma and biotech companies to establish significant Utah operations would go a long way to helping the state attract talent and investment dollars, and generating promising spinoffs.

Are life science companies able to find and secure capital in Utah?
Yes, deals are being done. Allocure, Sera Prognostics, Domain Surgical, BloXR, Catheter Connections and others are recent examples of companies with significant equity rounds.  TruClinic received seed funding this year. MediConnect was recently acquired, showing that Utah companies are being targeted.

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