Polis meets with local biotech industry leaders

Meeting hit on personnel recruitment, federal funding and CU's role

| Aug 28, 2010

BIO-BIZ BRIEFING: Rep. Jared Polis (center) hears from biotech execs. To his right, in light-blue shirt, is Nobel Prize laureate and CU prof Tom Cech. (Reporter photos)

In a meeting in his Baseline Rd. office Aug. 24, Rep. Jared Polis, was reminded by area biotech officials that Boulder’s still a second-tier biotech center. An ongoing problem is that biotech startups still have a hard time luring top talent here from the industry’s two hotbeds, Silicon Valley and Boston.

The  reason for this difficulty is the high failure rate among biotech startups and the overall thin ranks of biotech firms here. Should a potential employee move his family here, it’s entirely likely his new company and its would-be wonderdrug won’t pan out (most don’t), leaving him jobless. The chance of finding another job locally, often in a highly specialized field of biotech, aren’t all that great, attendees told Polis. Thus, the talented group of “serial entrepreneurs” here may be good at conceiving new drug ideas, but they struggle with funding and staffing.

Tom Cech and Jared Polis share lighter moment

Cech and Polis share a lighter moment

In attendance were execs of leading biotech R&D firms that included Kestrel Labs, GlobeImmune, SomaLogic, Biodesix, Clovis Oncology, miRagen, OPX Biotechnologies and Apoplogic. Also present were officials of the CU-based Colorado Initiative in Molecular Biology (CIMB), led by director Leslie Leinwand. Another key local figure present was  Kyle Lefkoff, a partner in Boulder Ventures Ltd., a venture-capital firm that is widely acknowledged as the region’s only major funder of biotech startups (he also Board Chairman at Array Biopharma).

There was consensus that what could catapult Boulder County up the ranks of biotech R&D would be a “stable anchor tenant” or two — a firm or firms that could provide a foundation for others the way that IBM and StorageTek did in data storage,  and that ConocoPhillips may  in the “clean tech” arena. It had once seemed that Synergen might play that role, but that company’s fortunes instead faded in the mid-1990s (weakened, it was acquired by industry giant Amgen).

Another issue heavy on the minds of local biotech execs is the flow of federal funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF). There’s decent funding for initial research, but many companies then fail to find adequate funding for the expensive development phase that follows.

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA)’s approval process for new drugs was criticized for fast-tracking drugs in politically charged areas like HIV-AIDS and cancer while being slow to approve drugs in other areas such as cardiovascular disease. A second complaint was that the FDA appraisal process focuses too much on “health outcomes” rather than on championing projects due to their scientific excellence.

Another topic was the shaky quality of science education in our schools along with the related concern of surging competition in biotech R&D from China. There was hand-wringing over how to further enhance the University of Colorado’s role in biotech education.

The meeting concluded with a discussion of policy issues such as the length in years of biotech patents, the tax treatment of R&D firms’ net operating losses, the so-called therapeutic tax credit and future increases in capital gains tax rates.

Through it all, Polis seemed in command of the subject matter and supportive of the local industry. It’s an industry that could easily come to play a larger role in Boulder’s economy — especially with some well-timed help from a sympathetic Congressman.