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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, April 30, 2007

Creating tech labs would be boon to state

By Lisa Gibson

Two years ago, an executive from Pharmacon, a San Diego-based life sciences company, sat in the offices of Enterprise Honolulu, a non-profit economic development organization. He stared intently at a map of O'ahu, trying to determine the best location for his new research lab. A few days later, he left Hawai'i empty-handed and decided to move his operation to Boston.

There was no available lab space for Pharmacon on O'ahu. The same scenario was repeated after visits by executives from a number of other startups, such as BioZak, Biophorix and GTC Biotherapeutics. All came to Honolulu to seek lab space and amenities that would enable them to relocate to the Islands. None found what they needed.

A study just published by Enterprise Honolulu lists "market cost or lack of facilities" as the No. 1 obstacle for Mainland technology companies interested in setting up shop in Hawai'i and for local tech companies that need to expand their operations.

Having the right facilities at the right price is crucial for economic development. Not having them can be harmful in ways that we might not suspect. According to the Enterprise Honolulu survey, 206 companies that had considered locating in Hawai'i between 2002 and 2006 decided not to move here. That cost Hawai'i more than 12,000 jobs, $668 million in annual payroll and $2.3 billion in lost investment. The primary reasons for deciding against Hawai'i were cost and lack of facilities.

We need to do everything we can to ensure that our fledgling startups have what it takes to expand their existing businesses.

Case in point: Hawaii Biotech, Cardax Pharmaceuticals and other local companies are anxious to expand or relocate to larger, more modern facilities planned for Kaka'ako. Fueled by local investment dollars, these startups need to be close to the brainpower and the cutting-edge laboratories at the University of Hawai'i John A. Burns School of Medicine and the new Cancer Research Center. This cluster of research and development activity is the nucleus of Hawai'i's life sciences industry. Proximity to the medical school facilities and the scientists who work there creates a vital synergy that is a key component to the development of our industry.

"There's a kind of magic that occurs when a lot of creative people are working in the same place," said Dr. Duane Gubler, director of Asia-Pacific Institute of Tropical Medicine and Infectious Diseases at the UH medical school. "Scientists exchange ideas in an informal way and it can lead to new ideas that is how major breakthroughs in research occur, and that is when big things happen." Gubler noted that the Centers for Disease Control is negotiating with UH to open up an office at the medical school to look at health threats in the Pacific and Asia.

"Having enough research lab space combined with high caliber scientists from the John A. Burns School of Medicine, the Cancer Research Center and the CDC is a recipe for success," said David Watumull CEO of Cardax. "Successful biopharmaceutical companies today can have drugs with $1 billion or more in sales. If we could have just a handful of those companies in Hawai'i, think of what that would mean in terms of jobs and wealth creation for our state."

The added bonus to our community is that startup companies pay good salaries and bring skilled kama'aina back from the Mainland. The average annual salary in life sciences is $62,000.

The public can contribute to the growth of Hawai'i's science and technology companies by asking legislators to pass HB 1083 and SB 896, which allow the High Technology Development Corporation to participate in a public-private partnership with Kamehameha Schools and developers KUD International and Phase III properties to build wet lab space so we can be competitive with life science hubs around the world.

Lisa H. Gibson, president and founder of the Hawaii Science & Technology Council, has nearly 30 years of experience in organizational, leadership, and economic development. She can be reached at lgibson@hawaiiscitechcouncil.org.