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Bioscience research and development can unlock the economic potential of the Mountain West
Guest column

Bioscience research and development can unlock the economic potential of the Mountain West


Beginning in World War II and continuing through the Cold War, public-sector biomedical and technology research led to discoveries that produced unprecedented economic and job growth, reshaped industries such as aerospace and pharmaceuticals, and led to new inventions, including computers and the Internet.

Investment in bioscience research today can deliver a similar transformation to the economy of the Mountain West. The transfer of discoveries, primarily from universities to early-stage and existing businesses, has created a U.S. bioscience industry that provided 1.9 million jobs and a $2 trillion economic impact in 2016, a 19% increase since 2001.

The Mountain West has at least a dozen research and innovation hubs where scientific discoveries made at public research universities and laboratories support a proven culture of entrepreneurship at cities large and small.

When a major pharmaceutical firm decided to close its research and development center in Montana in 2016, a group of bioscience researchers there chose to start their own firm and remain in the state. The result was Inimmune Corp., a Missoula biotech firm based at the University of Montana’s business incubator which works in collaboration with UM researchers to create the next generation of immunotherapeutic drugs.

Inimmune’s leadership also developed the Center for Transitional Medicine at UM to assist other researchers who want to commercialize their discoveries. In 2018, UM and Inimmune received a $5.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a novel vaccine to fight bacterial infections.

The University of Montana and Montana State University provide an ongoing and sustainable source of new discovery and patents for continued growth of research and innovation hubs in Montana. The state ranked fourth in academic bioscience R&D expenditure growth, with an 18.2% increase from 2014 to 2018, according to TEConomy-Bio’s 2018 report on the U.S. bioscience industry.

In the United States, 95% of the bioscience and biotechnology research and hub activity is located in five major coastal cities. This concentration has resulted in a large economic impact to those cities, but wasted technology and a lack of economic development in other regions.

A remedy to this loss of bioscience development potential is a network of research and innovation hubs anchored by Mountain West universities. This network promises to leverage bioscience technology and to spur economic development and job growth in a distributed network of communities outside the five coastal cities. This network of small hubs can create value greater than the sum of its parts, leading to economic and job growth that exceeds that of a single, large hub.

One effort is already helping, but we need more. ASCEND (Accelerating Solutions for Commercialization and Entrepreneurial Development) is an accelerator program that will provide this network effect in our region. ASCEND helps university biomedical researchers work with other universities, entrepreneurs and private firms to speed the development of new companies. ASCEND is a partnership of UM, MSU and nine other universities.

Given the capabilities of emerging entrepreneurial communities and the potential for networked activity in the Mountain West, Montana and other states offer the ideal environment for the creation of research and innovation hubs. Partnerships between state governments, universities, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists should be facilitated, incented and promoted in Montana and throughout the region.

Richard S. Larson, M.D., PhD, is president and chair of the New Mexico Bioscience Authority and executive vice chancellor at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences.

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