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August 21, 2003 :: Research and Training on College Campuses Key to Biotech Growth in Oklahoma

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A flurry of activity popping up across the Oklahoma landscape may be an indication that the state’s once fledgling biotechnology industry may be finally coming into its own.

Biotechnology, which involves manipulating biological organisms to make products that benefit humankind in areas such as medicine, food production and waste disposal, is seen by some state leaders as a panacea for Oklahoma’s economic woes. Others view it as merely one piece of the economic puzzle.

Regardless of the varying opinions, one thing is clear: the state’s public colleges and universities are playing pivotal roles in attracting and building the burgeoning industry in Oklahoma.

“It’s no coincidence that the states with the strongest economies have a strong research component at their colleges and universities,” Chancellor Paul G. Risser said. “Our higher education community is deeply committed to securing Oklahoma’s place on the biotechnology stage.

“Within the last decade, we have witnessed a surge in biotechnology research in the state, which has undoubtedly led to a proliferation of biotech and biomedical companies sprouting up throughout Oklahoma. Needless to say, we are confident that our colleges and universities will continue to forge the partnerships necessary to take our state to the next level.”

A few higher education institutions around the state have been involved in biotechnology research for several years. Research conducted at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in the mid-1980s, for example, led to the creation of Oklahoma City-based UroCor Inc. in the early 1990s, a biomedical company specializing in clinical diagnostic services for urologists.

UroCor was the first biotech company to move into the Presbyterian Health Foundation’s Research Park complex. UroCor was later sold to rival Dianon Systems Inc. for $180 million in stock. UroCor currently employs nearly 400 people and generates revenues of $45 million a year.

Spawned in the mid-1990s, Research Park currently houses 16 biotech companies employing nearly 1,000 researchers and skilled workers. It will add one more tenant next year when Cytovance Biologics Inc. moves into a soon-to-be-built, state-of-the-art, multi-million dollar facility where it will manufacture newly developed protein-based medicines.

Following UroCor’s lead, other biotech companies soon began springing up all around the state, especially in Oklahoma City. Most were created out of labs at the OU Health Sciences Center and the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation – companies such as Heparinex, Pure Protein, MedSynergy and Hyalose.

The creation of these and other biotech companies then and now may not have been possible without the passage of State Questions 680 and 681 in 1998, which helped clear the way for higher education institutions and their researchers to form business partnerships with private companies. A good example of this new change is Novazyme Pharmaceuticals, a company that developed therapy to treat gene-based diseases such as Pompe disease.

Dr. William Canfield started Novazyme in 1999 from research he conducted while employed at OU Health Sciences Center. Although the company was later sold to Genzyme Corp. for $225 million in stock, it is still conducting valuable research in Research Park. Both Canfield and OU gained financially from the sale of the stock. OU received about $1.5 million from the sale and may get another $500,000 if Canfield’s therapy receives U.S. Food and Drug Administration or European approval for clinical use.

Many of the biotech companies that have their beginnings in the Sooner State or relocate here from other states also draw heavily on the pool of talent produced on Oklahoma’s college campuses. An official from Cytovance Biologics said in a recent interview with The Oklahoman that his company expects to hire many of its employees from the OU Health Sciences Center.

Producing the highly skilled workers that these biotech companies need is a priority for Oklahoma colleges and universities and the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. That’s why, for instance, the State Regents gave a $250,000 workforce development grant to Oklahoma City Community College in 1999 to build and equip a state-of-the-art biotechnology laboratory for its new biotechnology program. Officials at the college expect demand for biotechnicians will increase even more as Oklahoma’s biotech industry expands.

In addition, the State Regents provided the funding to start technology transfer centers at OU and Oklahoma State University following the passage of S.Q. 680 and 681. They also allocate approximately $800,000 annually to operate the centers.

OSU conducts valuable research that helps train future scientists who will someday be working in many of Oklahoma’s biotechnology research and manufacturing facilities. The university’s Plant Biotechnology Network brings together 25 researchers who are studying plant genomics, which could have widespread potential applications for agriculture, medicine and energy.

The Tulsa area, long known for its connections to technology-based companies, could potentially be another growth area for the biotech industry. But that possibility may hinge on the passage of Tulsa County’s Vision 2025 proposal on September 9.

A couple of Vision 2025 projects under consideration to receive part of the proposed $99 million funding package for higher education are a research and medical clinic at OU-Tulsa and a medical biotechnology learning center at Tulsa Community College’s Southeast Campus. Both projects could produce trained workers for the biotech industry as well as generate more spin-off companies in the Tulsa area.

The expansion of biotechnology research in Oklahoma commands a high price tag but the end results are worth the investment, officials say. According to one report, for every $1 invested in health research, the state gets back $5.

“It’s vital that our colleges and universities continue to play an integral part in helping grow the biotechnology industry in Oklahoma,” State Regents Chairman Ike Glass said. “We have come a long way during the last decade, and we can’t let that momentum waiver. Oklahoma must continue investing in our public colleges and universities to attract the most talented biotech researchers in the nation and produce the highly trained workers that biotech companies need to succeed here.”

Sponsored research, a measure of the competitiveness in the state system, has increased 522.8 percent since 1988. Oklahoma’s investment of $60.4 million in state-supported research with the state system has attracted more than $170.4 million in external funding from many sources, such as grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Despite the increase in research grants in Oklahoma, the surrounding states of Colorado, Texas, Missouri and Kansas receive more federal funding.