How To Build a Biotech Cluster That Isn’t Boston or SF


Xconomy National — 

I live and work in Louisville, KY, a city that probably isn’t too different from a lot of communities in the U.S. that are not biotech hubs like San Francisco and Boston. Driven in part by economic development, many in my hometown would like to develop a biotech cluster. But building a biotech cluster is hard and takes time.

We have been hard at work on building a biotech cluster for some time. In 1997, Louisville community leaders produced a report that included developing an economic development niche “biomedical research and healthcare-related services.” The Research Challenge Trust Fund, or Bucks for Brains, started the following year. Bucks for Brains has enabled the University of Louisville to recruit and retain teams of research faculty from some of the best universities in the world. Carl Weissman, the CEO of Seattle-based Accelerator, frequently advises communities to recruit star scientists if they want to create biotech hubs, and Louisville has done it. In August 2011, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article on the top 100 universities in biggest gains in federal funding for R&D in sciences and engineering for the period 1999-2009. The University of Louisville ranked fourth on that list with an increase of 263.1 percent over the decade.

Bucks for Brains has helped to increase our intellectual property and technology base. But, those smart scientists are only one piece of the puzzle.Biotech companies need “management talent” who can take a raw idea from a lab and turn it into a finished product. As Xconomy’s Luke Timmerman has said, “management talent is the most important factor in determining whether a company will succeed—even more important than the technology a company starts with.”

This issue of “management talent” is where many aspiring U.S. biotech clusters fall short. For starters, size is an issue. Boston and San Francisco both have populations about equal to the entire state of Kentucky. The Louisville metropolitan statistical area currently ranks 42nd nationally, so we are not exactly small. Nevertheless, we don’t have the sheer volume of people that you’ll find in the bigger hubs.

And, we don’t have a true biotech anchor tenant in our community that “employs a lot of talented people.” There are very few guys and gals walking around the streets of Louisville who have taken a drug to market. The “management talent”—more specifically, people that have made venture capital firms like Domain Associates or Third Rock Ventures money on previous deals—is frequently not here. Fast casual dining? Sure. Energy brokerage? Sure. Healthcare services? Sure. Biologics? No.

We, like a lot of cities, have a biotech people issue. And this is important, because because I subscribe to the “bet on the jockey” cliché.

So what are communities like ours to do? We don’t throw in the towel, but we don’t compete head-on with the Bay Area or Boston, either. First, we realize we are not aspiring to be the next anywhere … Next Page »

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Andrew Steen is the vice president of business development for Metacyte Business Lab, a for-profit unit of the University of Louisville Foundation that seeks to stimulate life science startup activity. Follow @steen1969

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2 responses to “How To Build a Biotech Cluster That Isn’t Boston or SF”

  1. Thomas Loarie says:

    A great book to complement Steen’s thoughts is “Closing America’s Job Gap,” by Walshok, Munroe et al. One third of the book details San Diego’s successful collaboration that led to its emergence as an important life science and tech cluster.

    • Jimbo says:

      the problem is that san diego has now failed.

      And in relation to the article, seattle is failing to as companies move out of there or are bought by SF or boston companies.

      DC and Research triangles are still players, but it is really jsut SF and Boston.

      The authro also faield to mention the much greater access to entertainment, restaurants, skiing, and other lifestyle benefits to the coasts over lousiville