All eyes on Utah: Healthcare innovation is Utah’s next great economy
Since the pandemic, more Utahns understand both the importance and shortcomings of our health care system than ever before. Utahns watched in real-time the power of innovation and technology to address disease and system deficiencies. MRNA vaccines, which were never deployed for such broad use before, paved the way to global recovery. Telemedicine adoption skyrocketed as hospitals and clinics saw as many as 175 times the number of patients virtually. It was in this pressurized environment that we launched Altitude Lab, a startup incubator focused on developing a new, diverse generation of health care startups in Utah.
Companies working in health care innovation are developing new medicines, diagnostics, services, and delivery methods to improve patients’ access and quality of medical care. In Utah, this industry accounts for $13B in GDP. At Altitude Lab, our startups are deploying novel technology to do everything from understanding and treating cancer effectively to eliminating post-surgery dependency on opioids. The pandemic produced tailwinds for our industry as a whole and revealed Utah’s potential as a leader in this rapidly evolving sector.
In 2021, Salt Lake City ranked in the top three emerging markets attracting venture capital. When stacked against competing regions Portland ($196M) and Dallas ($310M), Salt Lake City attracted an astounding $295M in capital despite having the smallest population. But Utah has hit above its weight class for a few years now. Over the last 10 years, research jobs have grown by 74 percent in Salt Lake City, outranking other metros like Raleigh, Houston, and Pittsburgh (66 percent, 44 percent, and 33 percent respectively). For context, Utah’s health care innovation sector is now the 13th largest in the country with the highest concentration of jobs.
While the growth of the industry might be surprising to Utahns, coastal venture capitalists have noticed–in the last ten years, the state has attracted more than $2.3B in funding. And with more capital coming into the state, more startups are building in Utah than ever before. In 2021, Utah’s healthcare technology seed-stage startups set a record for funding with $79M dollars raised, 70 percent of which funded Altitude Lab’s startups. These promising macros have encouraged elected officials and community leaders to double their support for the growing sector.
In February, Salt Lake City Mayor Mendenhall released the Healthcare Innovation Blueprint, an economic development approach to increase education and employment opportunities for underserved residents. In the last two years, the University of Utah and Recursion not only launched Altitude Lab to support innovators, but worked with trade association, BioUtah, state legislators and other industry leaders to launch BioHive, a branding initiative to build local community and develop awareness for the industry in- and out-of Utah.
Thus, a new generation of healthcare leaders are emerging in Utah. Together they are creating an opportunity for Utah to become a top-tier health care innovation economy. From my seat at Altitude, I have the honor of watching women, minorities, and LGBTQ entrepreneurs become industry leaders, accelerate Utah’s economy, and innovate better care for patients everywhere.
Startups like Known Medicine, Teiko Bio, and Peel Therapeutics are tackling different challenges in cancer biology. Known Medicine is utilizing data science and three-dimensional tumor modeling to more intelligently target cancer while Peel has leveraged evolutionary phenomena in other species to develop therapies for humans. Teiko aims to improve the efficiency of clinical trials and drug development by deeply understanding immune response in patients. These Utahn companies are being watched by top investors across the country.
Much like Utah’s Silicon Slopes, out-of-state investors are getting involved first. While local investors largely think of health care investing as too risky (a rationale our tech sector also heard 15 years ago), out-of-state investors have created “bio funds” and are actively seeking opportunities to invest in Utah. Similarly, Utah’s health care sector growth has demanded companies to “import” talent from out of state. These tactics are not sustainable and demand that we must do better to educate our workforce on the interdisciplinary opportunities in our industry. These include needing skills from heavy manufacturing and automation, sales, marketing, material science, computer science, chemistry, and, of course, biology.
It’s time that Utahns start seeing our own potential to build a healthier future. We need to match the enthusiasm that out-of-state investors have exhibited with our own passion for impact. Altitude Lab is building and sustaining the growth of our industry by supporting Utahn-grown startups. By nurturing our entrepreneurial culture and local talent we’re investing early in Utah’s next great economy.