Sunday, August 06, 2000

Biotech in Ohio seeking funding

UC, other schools may join forces

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        An extensive effort involving Ohio's top three research universities and at least two state agencies would pump millions of state tax dollars into biomedical research in hopes of jump-starting a new engine of economic growth.

        One plan — developed jointly over the past several months by Case Western Reserve University, Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati — could be formally submitted to state officials by mid-September.

  • Recruit 260 new faculty, a near-doubling of UC's medical research staff. They would focus primarily on four areas: cancer, heart disease, prenatal development and neuro-behavioral research.
  • Increase federal research funding from $123 million a year to $240 million a year.
  • Rebuild the UC medical sciences building, a roughly $180 million project that would involve adding a 300,000 square foot laboratory wing and renovating the existing 1million-square-foot building floor by floor.
  • Renovate the Aventis research lab in Reading, formerly controlled by Marion Merrill Dow, for about $35 million. The site would house up to 300 workers and offer expansion space for fledgling tenants of Bio/Start, a biotech business incubator sponsored by UC and several local businesses.
  • Create a Biomedical Research Institute with its own board of trustees and ability to seek private research contracts. This institute would play the lead role in managing the renovated Aventis site in Reading.
  • Work on the Reading site could begin this year, once a property transfer is complete. UC hopes to complete the medical sciences building renovation by 2007.
        Another plan, being developed through an arm of the Ohio Board of Regents, could follow within weeks. Still other related proposals could flow from the Ohio Department of Development, members of the House of Representatives and others.

        Much of the planning is tied to Ohio's next biennial operating budget, which covers fiscal years 2002 and 2003. But some money initiatives could be pushed even sooner.

        “There are lots of plans in the works. But everybody has the same goal in mind, to use the resources of higher education to bolster the economy of the state,” said Harry Andrist, director of research and graduate programs for the Ohio Board of Regents.

        At stake: hundreds of millions of dollars in state, federal and private research and capital improvement funds, and potentially, billions of dollars in biotech business development in Ohio.

        This unprecedented level of biotech talk at the statehouse comes partly in response to the near-completion of the Human Genome Project, announced last month. But actually, the issue has been brewing for several years.

        News that scientists have decoded the basic blueprint of the human body has added urgency to Ohio's efforts to keep up with technology investment programs already announced by Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Arizona, Georgia and other states.

        “A decade ago, many people looked at university research as blue sky stuff ... distant,” Mr. Andrist said. “Now, the goal is highly entrepreneurial. Now, we're thinking about technology commercialization as being a direct goal of a university faculty member.

        “States are no longer content to just let these things happen. There's a sense that the state has to become a partner to encourage certain kinds of economic development,” Mr. Andrist said.

        Lobbying to pump money into Ohio's research universities has spread to a wide range of business, political and academic circles.

        “What I'm hearing are calls for moving toward the concept of focused research. If you look at Route 128 in Boston, Silicon Valley or the things going on at the University of Texas at Austin, you will see economies driven by focused university research,” said Pat Valente, a deputy director at the Ohio Department of Development.

        “These are the areas we need to concentrate on if Ohio is going to play a bigger role in the new knowledge economy,” he said.

        In July during a speech at the Columbus Athletic Club, Ohio State University president William Kerwan urged Ohio lawmakers to pump a half-billion dollars into technology development.

        In June, a Cincinnati entourage including former Congressman William Keating, Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken and Dr. Donald Harrison, top administrator of the UC Medical Center traveled to Washington, D.C., to urge Ohio senators and congressmen to support biotech projects.

        The key parts of UC's plan include spending more than $200 million to rebuild its medical sciences building, renovate a research building in Reading and hire 260 new faculty members. Ohio State and Case Western also have building projects in the works, but officials would not discuss details this week.

        “We believe that Southwestern Ohio is on the brink of a biotech revolution and the economic and philanthropic impact of the research conducted at (UC Medical Center) is key to the success of the region,” Mr. Luken wrote in a follow-up letter to Rep. John Boehner, dated June 19.

        Since February, similar letters have been sent to Ohio's Congressional delegation by Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals, the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, the Hamilton County commissioners, former Ohio Senate President Stanley Aronoff and H.C. Buck Niehoff, finance chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party.

        UC, Ohio State and Case Western all rank among 75 universities nationwide listed as “Research 1” universities by the Carnegie Commission. That means they rank among the nation's top research institutions.

        For years, the three schools have battled for faculty, students and research grants. Now, they are attempting to work together.

        “Our vision is to move Ohio expeditiously into the new biomedical economy,” states a memo drafted in April by the three schools and sent to the Ohio Department of Development. “It must start by providing the necessary facilities at its research institutions. In order to catch the wave of the biomedical revolution and not fall behind other states that are already investing in their research infrastructures, Ohio must move rapidly.'

        Their plan, which is not in final form, would include at least $60 million in capital improvement money for each school and millions more to recruit at least 600 researchers to Ohio.

        The plan also would be a first step in a long term effort to change how Ohio supports higher education.

        Ohio needs to adopt a funding system similar to California, Texas and other states, where elite research centers get higher levels of funding than other colleges and universities, Dr. Harrison said.

        The Ohio Board of Regents uses a single funding formula to make its recommendations to the legislature. That formula isn't flexible enough to build the facilities and recruit the high-priced scientists the big three universities are seeking, Dr. Harrison said.

        Ohio Gov. Bob Taft has met with university officials and others on the biotech funding issue. But how much priority he will place on the issue remains unclear.

        Mr. Taft, who was attending the Republican National Convention last week, was unavailable for comment.

        “The governor is very much in favor of biotech research. He believes Ohio needs to get out in front on this issue,” said spokeswoman Mary Anne Sharkey. “But he probably will not take a position on any specific proposals until he hears from his key people.”

        Several state officials said biotech funding plans face two potential obstacles.

        Mr. Taft and the General Assembly have been focused on K-12 education issues ever since court rulings declared Ohio's school funding system to be unconstitutional.

        Some resistance is expected from other Ohio colleges — especially those with medical schools — that won't be as involved in the research.

        In a May 26 letter to the UC, Ohio State and Case Western university presidents, Glenn Brown, Mr. Taft's science and technology officer, urged them to find way to include other schools.

        “The path for the proposal will be relatively smoother if a way can be found to open up this facility funding mechanism to other life science institutions,” Mr. Brown wrote.

        More discussion about the biotech issue will continue Thursday at a meeting of the Higher Education Funding Commission, a part of the Ohio Board of Regents.

        The regents are considering an “Ohio Plan” that calls for increased state support of universities willing to work together in three focus areas: biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technology.


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