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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, June 12, 2004

Biotech industry grows from within

Interviewed by Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer.

Bob Olson knows a bit about biotech. Olson has had a hand in developing the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park in Richmond, Va., the nation's third major biotech park launched in the early 1990s, and then later in the redevelopment of the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colo., into a life sciences park.

Olson, now regional director for the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration, will discuss the redevelopment of the Fitzsimons center, biotech industry developments nationwide and how lessons learned in other areas may apply to Hawai'i's biotech efforts during a free lecture 5 p.m. Thursday at the Kaka'ako Gateway Park.

In an interview with The Advertiser last week Olson touched on some of the topics he'll discuss during the lecture sponsored by the John A. Burns School of Medicine and the University of Hawai'i College of Business.

For more information call 956-3712.

Q: What are some of the lessons learned during efforts to build a biotech industry in communities on the Mainland?

A: Most areas that are having great success in this have come to understand that it's not the recruitment — you don't get on an airplane to go get your industry somewhere else. You really grow it from within. A lot of traditional economic development views across the U.S. have the classic economic development, marketing and recruitment (strategy) which is really not the way this industry is developing.

First of all it's having important research where society has needs and having those discoveries able to come out of the wall of basic science research at academia and putting it into an entrepreneurial setting. That's how the important biotech clusters today have happened and that's how most people view (how) the new clusters will happen.

Probably the big message that I will bring is all the ingredients that are really needed in order to have this kind of initiative ... involve really engaging an academic medical center and a university and becoming a full participant in the project and opening resources to the initiative to align technology transfer.

Q: What advantages does Hawai'i have in its biotech efforts?

A: Certainly life science and biotech clusters have located in non-highest living amenity areas of the U.S. To date they've located where there is an academic medical center or a research institution or a combination. These efforts need to have access to business-center cities. Business services are very important so the Kaka'ako site obviously is adjacent to the downtown area and is in proximity to an important airport. You have high-living amenity in Hawai'i. All of those are probably good strengths.

Q: Are many communities also targeting biotech?

A: There are probably 20 states that in the last three years have commissioned biotech industry development strategies. There are questions out there as to whether this industry and whether all 20 states will really have an important presence in the life science industry and can grow that in the near term. Some probably won't. Some of these states and some counties may not have as strong ingredients as others. (While) There's recognition that the industry is rapidly growing and has tremendous promise ... there's still a feeling that not every city that wants to be a biotech center or have an important cluster of this activity will have it.

Q: How has the experience at Fitzsimons become a catalyst for interest nationwide in biotech?

A: It's been very successful in a short period of time. (The center opened in 2000 and within two years had 18 biotech start-ups). The success of that has actually inspired a movement we're now terming big-bang biotech. Three projects that have just been launched — one in Arizona, one in Kansas City and one in Florida. There's a huge amount of capital behind projects that have the intention of jump-starting very rapidly a biotech cluster where there hasn't been one before. There's a tremendous amount of interest. (But) there's a realization that these projects need to be supported by more fundamental work along the way such as (fostering) availability of venture capital, (creating) state and federal policies to support this activity and (having) patience because this stuff doesn't happen absolutely overnight.