Call it a best-kept secret
A subtle shift is taking place in the laboratories of Austin and across the country.
For years, innovations and solutions to problems have been based on physics and related sciences. Smaller chips, faster computers, wireless communications. But that's changing. More ideas are springing from biology-based sciences.
Researchers point to areas such as the government spending more on biology-based research than it spends on research founded in physics. New patents based on biology have exceeded those based on physics for several years. Universities are awarding more degrees in the biosciences than in physics-related areas.
Private industry, too, is making a substantial investment in biotechnology, defined as the use of cellular and molecular processes to solve problems or make products. IBM Corp. is sending $100 million into technological support of gene and protein research; Hewlett Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. have announced biotech investments.
These trends have not gone unnoticed by the powers that be in Austin.
"It's our belief that Austin will be known as a biotech mecca," says John Hoopingarner, vice president of portfolio companies operations at Emergent Technologies Inc. "High tech and biotech prosper and flourish when there is a high degree of brain power, and universities are the first place you look. It's no accident, for example, that Boston is such a mecca for biotech, with MIT and Harvard."
Emergent's business approach -- collaborating with creators and inventors to commercialize early stage technologies -- relies on access to researchers, and the company sees a lot of potential at the University of Texas at Austin. Since commercialization of new technology is often a hurdle for researchers, it seems a perfect match.
Susan Davenport, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce director of economic development, works on developing the city's biotechnology industry. The chamber recruits existing companies to locate in Austin and encourages startup growth in the area. She considers the university a valuable partner, too.
"UT completes the picture. It is a world class university doing world class research, and much of it lends itself to startup in this area," Davenport says.
Collaboration between the business community and the university is one of Austin's strong points.
"This city has a history of sharing," says David Smith, vice president of Technology Futures Inc., an Austin company providing information, analysis and insights related to technology and market forecasting.
"That is extremely important for something like this to be successful," Smith says.
Austin's original collaborative model was when the city, university and community together drew Microelectronics Computer Corp., known more familiarly as MCC, to Austin. Similar, current efforts include the Austin Software Council and "Biobashes," chamber-sponsored networking events.
What Austin lacks, Smith believes, is a medical school. "Look at the other places in the country where there is a strong concentration of biotech, and there is a strong medical center," he says.
Other enthusiasts aren't bothered by this apparent shortcoming.
"We think there are a lot of good opportunities with UT," Hoopingarner says. "There may be no sign on the Austin campus that says `health sciences center,' but that doesn't mean there's not a lot of potential for a biotech industry to start. There are the pharmacy and biochem departments. A lot of world class scientists at UT are doing things that are complementary to those at UT Galveston or San Antonio, where there are health sciences centers. They just aren't training doctors in Austin."
According to Juan Sanchez, vice president for research at UT Austin, the university works with medical schools. It is involved in a collaborative bioengineering effort with M.D. Anderson in Houston. He also says there is much more to biotechnology than what is done at medical schools.
"There is a big universe out there and it presents many opportunities for an institution like UT without a medical school to contribute," Sanchez says. "Our efforts to grow the biotechnology industry simply need to be more strategic."
"In the past, most biotech grew up around medical institutions," Davenport says, "and the thinking was you'd be at a disadvantage if you didn't have one. We haven't been hurt by that. Other things are very important. You need a huge computer component, for example, which Austin has. When we started, people hadn't thought of Austin as a biotech center, but we've come a long way."
In a paper she prepared on the potential for biotechnology development in Austin, Davenport identified four areas where research at UT shows particular promise: biological devices, nanomaterials, bioinformatics and pharmaceutical research and development.
In addition to top-notch research scientists, the university provides another important resource for a budding biosciences industry -- a supply of educated workers. There are more than 1,000 students pursuing master's degrees in engineering, and more than 700 enrolled at the doctoral level.
The chamber has a biotech group to brainstorm ways to increase the commercialization of biotech research. Another initiative looks for ways to place university researchers in front of venture capitalists and others in the community, to communicate what research is being done and to look at what might be commercially marketable.
Those kinds of efforts are critical, because many a promising technology never makes it from the lab to the market.
"UT has excellent, strong programs in material sciences, chemistry, physics, biochem and engineering mechanics," Smith says. "They are well positioned to be innovative and aggressive. But UT lags behind in its research ownership and transfer policies. Some other universities, like Columbia, encourage innovation and have excellent policies."
If that problem can be adequately addressed, Smith believes Austin has tremendous potential to play a leadership role in the biotech industry.
"The basic assets are here," Sanchez says. "There are some missing ingredients -- a medical center, advanced facilities optimized for biotech research, and some leadership issues -- but those are things that can be worked on."
Sanchez believes the ability to attract talent to Austin, both faculty and students, is one of the university's main contributions.
"Sending students out into the business world when they complete their studies is our most efficient way of technology transfer," he says.
UT will continue to work with those in the community interested in developing biotechnology in central Texas.
"There are many things that need to be done, and that we are doing," Sanchez says. "It is a multi-dimensional problem, but a solvable one."
"I've been so impressed with how they've opened their doors at UT," Davenport says. "I can't speak highly enough of them. The University of Texas will be a focal point for developing the biotech industry in this region."
Melissa Gaskill is an Austin-based free-lance writer."