BIO Alabama: Bioscience economic development road map unveiled

BIO Alabama: Bioscience economic development road map unveiled
A panel discusses the BIO Alabama economic development road map during the organization's virtual annual conference. (contributed)

BIO Alabama unveiled an economic development road map strategy at its virtual conference on the week of Oct. 5 to best position the state for future opportunity.

The organization represents the state on an international stage as the leading advocate for Alabama’s bioeconomy, promoting the state as a premier place to invest, start and grow in bioscience.

The economic development road map was built off information from key stakeholders, with six focus groups made up of 40 participants and more than 100 survey respondents. Key stakeholder groups included representatives from startups, university researchers, economic developers and the business community.

Recommendations focused on three critical areas for the bioscience industries:

  • Startup and technology transfer
  • Workforce development
  • Business attraction and retention.
Blair King.

The three areas will start the strategy, with BIO Alabama continuing to refine the road map and adding more details and areas of focus over time.

Blair King, chairman of the board of directors of BIO Alabama and an economic development manager at Alabama Power, said, “BIO Alabama is the ideal organization to really provide proactive guidance to the economic development community on how to pursue growth within the different areas, also providing guidance on how we can serve the needs of our existing companies.”

The full economic development road map is available at BioAlabama.com/Ecosystem.

Business attraction and retention

Amy Sturdivant with the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology spoke on the findings related to business attraction and retention in Alabama.

Amy Sturdivant.

Sturdivant noted that because the state has a strong manufacturing base, it is important to capitalize on the relationships that our universities and local workers already have in our nation and around the world.

“When a company or someone has new intellectual property, they know that Alabama is great place where they can bring that and grow that here,” Sturdivant said. “Economic developers are really good at networking and making those connections, but we have to get in there and talk to our existing companies and existing researchers and those who have those relationships in order to really make those connections.”

Survey results showed the top five areas Alabama is positioned to grow in bioscience are genomics research, personalized medicine, drug discovery and development, diagnostic tools, and the delivery of products and supplies in pharmaceuticals.

Data from the survey also showed the top two sizes/stages of bioscience companies the state should recruit are domestic with fewer than 50 employees.

Workforce development

Jonathan Cox.

Moving into workforce development, Jonathan Cox, senior account manager at Aerotek, said, “Alabama has great talent that is ready to go to work. We have fantastic educational institutions that turn out an exceptional volume of life science talent year over year over year, and that really was a thing that we saw throughout the survey.”

Cox spoke to the need to make available roles known to workers outside of the state and he believes that BIO Alabama could become a connector of talent by housing and facilitating opportunities within the bioscience field.

Agreeing with Cox, King spoke to the need of in-state universities providing a strong talent pipeline, saying, “Once we get them here, they stay; it’s just a matter of how we put our message out.”

Startups and technology transfer

James Childs.

James Childs, partner at Maynard Cooper, mentioned the absence of easily available capital in the life science sector. Many angel investors prefer to invest in fields outside of life sciences because of how much capital it can take to invest in a company in the bioscience industry.

Saksham Narang.

Saksham Narang, venture advisor for the Bill L. Harbert Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said that because of a knowledge gap in investing, it can be difficult to explain niche innovations to investors.

BIO Alabama’s research found that there is a need for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) match program to support entrepreneurs in the startup phase. Nearly 80 percent of survey respondents said an SBIR/STTR or R&D credit is their highest priority.

“An SBIR/STTR match program means that the state would match federal grant dollars into the companies and that is a phenomenal boost to their ability to innovate. Also, investors love what they refer to as ‘non-diluting capital’ because that is capital that is at high risk and funds high risk expenses and it does not dilute the investors ownership,” said Childs.

Adding to that point, Narang said there has been an uptick in SBIR/STTR submissions specifically related to startups in the bioscience industry not only because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but because of the “need to really secure that seed round so companies can launch from the university setting with some level of comfort and strategy.”

Panelist shared there is a direct tie between the presence of any federal or state grant and the comfort level an angel investor has.

“Angel investors have a lot of comfort if there’s a grant that’s been awarded to the company because it tells them that subject matter experts have reviewed the technology and found that it has merit,” Childs said.

Summarizing the BIO Alabama economic development road map, King said, “Science plus policy plus capital translates into bioscience economic growth.”

To engage with Alabama’s bioscience community, visit BIOAlabama.com to learn more about internships, volunteerism, membership and more.

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