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San Antonio is still assembling the building blocks for its bioscience industry
October 4, 2013

By W. Scott Bailey, San Antonio Business Journal

Assessments vary even among local leaders over where San Antonio stands in the U.S. bioscience race.

There is some consensus, however, that San Antonio needs to gain significant ground to catch up with Boston, San Diego, San Francisco and several other cities that have positioned themselves as frontrunners in an economic sector that employs roughly 2 million people nationally.

If San Antonio hopes to close the gap, it will need to overcome a number of challenges, including the perception among some that the Alamo City might be better suited for tourists than scientists. But if industry stakeholders can break through those barriers, convincing more companies, talent and investors that this is fertile ground for the life sciences, that could have a transformative impact on the nation's seventh largest city.

"If you had asked me a year ago what I thought about San Antonio, I would have said, ‘Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and the Alamo.' I had no clue," says new StemBioSys Inc. CEO Peter Savas, a global player in the bioscience industry who is relocating from Boston. "I think what San Antonio has is an awareness problem. There is a huge misunderstanding about what this city is. The world generally thinks of San Antonio for its tourism. It's so much more than that."

San Antonio aggressively markets its tourism assets internationally. The city will need to be equally aggressive in promoting the biosciences on a larger stage if it hopes to generate dramatic growth in the industry.

BioMed SA Chairman Kenneth Trevett says the organization, which was established to help promote San Antonio's bioscience sector, has limited marketing funds, some $550,000 annually.

"It's not a question of how to do it," says Trevett about a bolder marketing push. "It's a question of how to get the money to do it. We've just got to have more assets to do the job. We've just got to tell our story more effectively and more broadly."

Others in the industry share that view.

"We are starting significantly behind some other places," says University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio President Dr. William Henrich. "We would do better if we didn't hide our light under a bushel."

Crowded field
A number of U.S. cities have jumped on the bioscience bandwagon in hopes of giving their respective economies a major lift. Dallas-Fort Worth, considered among the top-tier bioscience clusters in the U.S., puts its annual economic impact from health care and the biosciences at $52 billion.

In San Diego, the life sciences had an economic impact of $36.6 million in 2012.
There are smaller cities that are also making some headway.

"Two cities that come to mind are Birmingham, Ala., and Cleveland, Ohio., which people would not think of as a hotbed of clinical and biomedical work. Yet they both are," Trevett explains "Cleveland is spending millions of dollars on infrastructure and marketing."

BioEnterprise and Midtown Cleveland are promoting the Cleveland Health-Tech Corridor in an effort to attract more biomedical, health care and technology companies.

The Bay Area is taking a regional approach to growing the biosciences in northern California, pulling together resources from multiple communities. Whereas in Texas, San Antonio and Austin could find themselves competing for some of the same researchers, money and businesses. The University of Texas System is moving forward with plans to develop a medical school in Austin, which could trigger new bioscience opportunities and activity in the Capital City - at San Antonio's expense.

San Antonio needs to rally its troops, industry leaders warn.

"We have to collaborate as a city to get different interest groups rowing in the same direction," Trevett says.

Mark Gilger, pediatrician in chief for Christus Santa Rosa Health System's new Children's Hospital of San Antonio, says the Alamo City needs more "unity and cooperation" and must "break down old barriers" if it wants to foster real growth in the biosciences.

"We need all hands on deck," Henrich insists. "We have to get more talented scientists in San Antonio. We have to get more biomedical research at UTSA. We have to grow our own research portfolio (at the Health Science Center). We have to strengthen our ties with the military. Those are the things that we have to do now."

Capital infusion
Dr. Anthony Tolcher, clinical director for South Texas Accelerated Research Therapeutics (START), believes San Antonio needs to focus more on talent than on infrastructure.

"You look at Boston, New Haven and San Diego and you will see old buildings with great talent working inside," Tolcher says, explaining that it is the researchers who will generate the innovation that will ultimately attract more talent, capital and companies.

Tolcher adds that San Antonio should "chart its own course" as it looks to build critical mass in the biosciences, carving out a niche in those areas where it is more likely to set itself apart from the competition, where it can have a global influence.

"At the end of the day," says Savas, "capital is the fuel that gets all of this moving."

San Antonio is making some headway in that area. The Targeted Technology Fund, which was established in 2009 in the Alamo City, raised $12 million for its initial round. It's now looking to raise $50 million for a second funding round.

Texas Research & Technology Foundation, a San Antonio-based entity, is also raising capital to fund area life science ventures. TRTF is currently looking to raise about $12 million for a new fund that will focus on bioscience start-ups, according to San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who says more private capital is needed.

"We need more philanthropic investment in the biosciences, too," Henrich says. "This has been a challenge for San Antonio when compared with cities like Dallas and Houston - and to some degree, Austin."

Unlike Austin and Houston, San Antonio lacks a Tier I research university, which Henrich says is also essential if the Alamo City wants to compete with the top bioscience clusters. UTSA is working to attain that status.

Despite the challenges, there is some consensus among industry leaders that San Antonio can step up and become a far more significant player in the biosciences.

"That's why I am here," Savas says.

"I believe this city can be the next Boston/Cambridge, the next San Diego or the next San Francisco," Trevett says. "But we have more work to do."


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