While many companies have struggled throughout the years of a down-turned economy, Utah’s life science industry has found ways to not just stay afloat but to thrive.
“The life sciences industry in Utah has been growing for the last 10 years,” says Gary Harter, Managing Director for Business Outreach for the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED). “In fact, there has never been a month that we’ve gone down in employment. It’s increasing employees month over month.”
That growth—thanks in no small part to industry heavyweights like Merit Medical, Fresenius and Edwards Lifesciences—has totaled about 6,000 new jobs over the past decade. The 26,000 Utahns working in the life sciences sector now account for more than 2 percent of the state’s total workforce.
More important than the number of jobs is the type of jobs the industry creates. “Employees in this sector earn almost 45 percent more than the average Utah wage,” Harter says. “Because there is more money available to the employees, more money is pushed into the economy in the form of housing, discretionary spending and the arts. That’s a bonus for everyone.”
While tax incentives and a pro-technology state government have made Utah both a breeding ground and a relocation destination for all types of life science companies, the state’s culture of research, innovation and collaboration plays the biggest role in the industry’s enduring success.
GOING BACK TO COLLEGE
Idaho Technology is one of the many Utah-based companies that have a strong connection to the state’s universities. “We’re basically a University of Utah spin- out,” says Randy Rasmussen, President and COO of the pathogen identification and DNA Analysis Company.
Idaho Technology couldn’t resist the draw of being in Salt Lake, near the University. “The location—next to the University of Utah and the collaborators there, and the graduates coming out of the University of Utah and Brigham Young University—was really compelling,” Rasmussen says. “There’s a strong molecular program at the University that produces the sort of biochemists that we need to develop new products.”
One of those new products is called FilmArray, a human diagnostic tool used for determining respiratory infections. Because of its overwhelming success, Rasmussen says Idaho Technology is busy “hiring like crazy” to keep up with the demand.
“In the very recent past, only very highly complex laboratories could do DNA or RNA testing for viruses or bacteria,” Rasmussen explains. As a result, hospitals would have to send their patients’ samples to a central reference laboratory to be tested.
Idaho Technology wanted to simplify that process. “We came up with a system that can be run easily in the hospital labs by less-trained personnel,” Rasmussen says. “Now that sample, instead of having to go across town or to another state, can be tested right in the building while the patient waits. [That means] the patient can immediately get the results and then get a prescription, get admitted or get sent home, depending on what’s appropriate.”
The new product has not only caught the attention of hospitals but the science community as well In fact, FilmArray was recently ranked third on The Scientist magazine’s list of 2011’s top innovations. Idaho technology is also working on other easy-to-use tests used to determine the cause of blood poisoning and gastrointestinal disease.
SERVING THE SECTOR
With so many Utah companies manufacturing medical supplies, there becomes a real need for someone to supply the supplier. Salt Lake City-based Biomerics got its start manufacturing polymer solutions for large players in the market, including Bard Access Systems, BD Medical and Stryker.
“Our business started with these technologies and has grown into the leading OEM [original equipment manufacturer] in the state,” says Travis Sessions, President and CEO at Biomerics. “Today we operate a 95,000-square-foot facility and include compounding, molding, extrusion and assembly services.”
Biomerics’ client list has also grown over the years, and now the company manufactures biomaterials and other products for many of the world’s leading medical devices. “With operations in Utah and Rhode Island, over 150 medical companies depend on our technologies,” Session says.
That doesn’t mean that the company has lost track of its roots. Just this past year, Biomerics launched new products with several Utah companies, including Salt Lake City start-up Domain Surgical and Orem-based medical device manufacturer Aribex. These and other projects have helped Biomerics achieve double-digit growth each of the past three years and to continue to create new jobs.
BRINGING INNOVATION TO PATIENTS
It’s not only Utah’s for-profit companies that are focusing on medical research and innovations. Nonprofit hospital systems throughout the state are also quickly becoming hotbeds for advancement in areas ranging from heart care to cancer treatment.
Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare performs research in nearly all medical specialty areas, often in collaboration with partners at the University of Utah and other institutions throughout the country.
Intermountain recently helped discover 13 new genetic markers for heart disease, more than doubling the known database of 10. The hospital system has also developed a maternal-fetal mapping system to better know when a baby is stressed inside the womb so physicians can determine whether a mother needs a C-section.
“We’ve also found connections between Alzheimer’s and cardiac problems, been the first in the nation to insert a heart pump during a cardiac catheterization and currently have 52 research trials underway in the area of cancer alone,” says Jason Burgess, spokesperson for Intermountain Healthcare. “In total, we have 1,340 research studies underway.” The reason for all of the research, which comes at no small cost to the organization, is simple, Burgess says. “It means better care. It helps patients live healthier lives.”
ALIGNING EDUCATION AND ECONOMY
While the success of Utah’s life science industry is driven by new ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit, it also enjoys a solid foundation of support from a wide range of state agencies.
In the early 2000s, the state received a $5 million federal grant as part of the Workforce Innovations in Regional Economic Development (WIRED) initiative. The state has used those dollars to provide workforce development support to the life science industry.
“The WIRED initiative was focused on bringing in partners that may not have had a working relationship prior to the grant, including public education, higher education, industry, government and nonprofits,” explains Dr. Tami Goetz, GOED’s State Science Advisor.
WIRED targets both K-12 and college students, exposing them to many areas of science, technology, engineering and math. Adding hands-on experience to conceptual learning leads to graduates who are workforce ready.
Goetz says the initiative is a win-win for both students and the life science industry. “Whatever the industry, you need to be concerned with talent—whether you have access to an adequate amount of talent, and talent that is well trained and ready to go into the workforce. If you can’t find the right kind of talent, you’re not going to grow.”
At the time of the initiative, the state looked at its programs to see if its students were competitive in the life sciences, and then made changes to meet the current and projected needs of the industry.
“From a student’s point of view, being aware of all the options that are available once you graduate impacts the choices that you make throughout your education,” Goetz says. “We work to let our students know that if they get a four-year biotechnology degree from Utah Valley University, there will be jobs for them when they’re done.”
Utah business and community leaders are also working to help solidify the link between education and economic development. Led by local chambers of commerce, the Prosperity 2020 movement was recently created to advance educational investment and innovation. The movement wants the state to reach two goals: 90 percent of elementary students achieving math and reading proficiency; and two-thirds of Utahns achieving post- secondary training by 2020.
Lane Beattie, President and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber explains the importance of the initiative. “Utah businesses—those that start here and those that come here—can only grow with a first- class workforce. Our ability to educate our students and prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow’s economy will determine our economic strength and our life quality for decades to come.” Whether in the life sciences or any other sector, he adds, “It is critical that we raise the bar of expectation and that we increase our level of investment and innovation in education.”