ARIZONA DAILY STAR
January 11, 2012
In the midst of all the difficulties that the U.S. economy is going through, Silicon Valley stands out as the exception. In Santa Clara or Palo Alto, Calif., incomes are almost twice the national median and poverty is 50 percent lower. Well-paid jobs abound and often remain vacant because of a lack of qualified applicants.
Two years ago, when I became the director of Bio5, the University of Arizona’s interdisciplinary institute for the life sciences, my goal was to help transform Tucson and surrounding communities into a mini-Silicon Valley.
I am convinced that we already have a big lead, a billion-dollar lead.
A little history will help explain. In the 1970s, a cluster of technology-based and innovation-driven companies developed along the west coast of San Francisco Bay. During the next 30 years, it grew into a major powerhouse. By 2005, in the biotech area alone there were 67 companies in the Bay Area with a market capitalization of $162 billion.
Many U.S. communities tried to imitate the biotech success of the Bay Area but only two succeeded: Boston-Cambridge and San Diego. Economists are still debating why they thrived, but three conditions were common to all three places.
First, there was science. All three areas were home to strong research universities and academic medical centers where innovative ideas that became medical and agricultural products were generated.
Here is where Tucson has its big lead: We have a university and a health center with hundreds of top bio-scientists who receive almost 60 percent of the $180 million awarded by the National Institutes of Health to our state each year.
I calculate that any city aiming to re-create our scientific bio-infrastructure would need to invest at least a billion dollars, just to get started.
However, many cities have thriving research centers and medical schools but are no Silicon Valley.
Science is not enough. Few scientists are trained to transform new knowledge into value, into products that solve problems.
In all three major biotech clusters, entrepreneurs teamed with scientists to select the most promising ideas coming out of labs. That was the second key: creating a critical mass of scientists and entrepreneurs.
This new energy and flourishing activity attracted the third necessary element: the investment capital needed to fund the development of new products.
But this is only the beginning; we are still far away from the critical mass we need to make us attractive to more scientists, more entrepreneurs and more companies, and to attract more capital eager to invest in our discoveries.
Bio5 was created to accelerate this process. We are enhancing the crucial next step: creating contacts among UA scientists, entrepreneurs and industry.
We provide funds to transform innovative ideas into pharmaceutical drugs and medical devices that local biotech companies can then take to market.
We created our own drug development program, Bio5-OroValley, where those companies can better interact with our UA scientists.
Our region is at a crossroads. A concerted effort by our regional authorities, our research university and our local industry can and should make us a part of the thriving knowledge-based society of the 21st century.
We already have a billion-dollar lead. Let’s use it.
Dr. Fernando Martinez is among the nation’s top researchers in asthma. At the UA, he is the Swift-McNear professor of pediatrics, director of the College of Medicine’s Arizona Respiratory Center and director of the Bio5 Institute.