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Many regions in the United States, and the world for that matter, are seeking to entice biotech companies to relocate. As Lorraine Ruff and David Gabrilska describe in their Genetic Engineering News Article, “Metrics for Economic Development,” the exhibitors at meetings like BIO work hard to:

“.. entice founders and CEOs with a wide spectrum of inducements: institutional and technological excellence, free land, preferential tax rates, and low electricity and/or water rates. They punctuate the sale with regional culinary novelties: home of the famous crawfish (with plush toy), tasty sour mash whiskey (no samples).”

I haven’t been to the BIO conference for a few years, but I always enjoyed meeting the business development groups who attended BIO from all over the world. And some of them, at least the groups from Scotland, did bring whiskey.

Sorry, Lorrraine and David, I think you went to the wrong hospitality suites!

Nevertheless, the article makes some very good points, namely that many regions fail to develop a coherent message and in fact, hurt their chances when neighboring counties compete with each other. They also note that:

“… only a small percentage of life sciences companies actually relocate to form companies away from their roots…”

and

“It occurred to us that with the certainty of rapid change, it behooves state economic development departments to spend more time in industry breakout sessions, keeping abreast of the industry’s financial, clinical, and business development trends. They should also add to their promotion staff subject-matter expertise in customer/market trends, industry finance, and cost-benefit/ROI analysts who can provide forecasts as thoughtful decision- support tools for local economic development and elected officials.”

Despite the good advice the authors overlooked the role that education might play in economic development. Any advantages that might come from partnerships between development groups and community colleges were completely ignored.

I was surprised that this question, in particular, was missed:

Does the availability of an educated workforce have an impact on a company’s decision to relocate?

This is an important question because there are many community colleges that are either starting new biotechnology education programs or thinking about starting new programs. It would be helpful for these schools to know more about the connection between their activities and economic growth.

The company view
I think I can guess our company’s perspective on relocation. This is total speculation on my part, and I am definitely not speaking on behalf of my company, but I don’t think we’d ever relocate to an area unless we thought we would have access to an intelligent, educated pool of potential employees. Our customers are all over the world, but we could only survive in areas where smart people would want to live and want their children to go to school.

The academic view
It seems likely that educational opportunities and a ready supply of educated people would be seen as a positive factor, in a company’s decision to relocate, but how does the picture look from the school’s point of view?

Does it make sense to build new programs before a local biotech industry has been established?

Community colleges who are starting new programs have to face these sorts of questions:

If we build a program, will the industry grow? And will the industry grow quickly enough to justify our program?

The lack of an existing biotech community, of a sufficient size, presents a real obstacle to a program’s success.
The first issue arises at the beginning of a program when the program designers need to decide what skills will be taught. Biotechnology has a distinctly regional flavor, and often reflects the specialties of the Universities and research institutions in the local area. Skill sets that are in demand in some regions, are not needed in others. For example, companies in agricultural areas might need technicians who are knowledgeable in plant tissue culture or artificial insemination. Companies in cities with cancer research institutes are likely to need technicians with different skills such as fluorescent- activated cell-sorting, and working with monoclonal antibodies.

Finding an advisory board
New biotech programs need help from local companies at the very beginning. They have to enlist help from local companies in designing a new biotech program and determining what will be taught. Colleges need to detailed knowledge about the companies in their local area and the types of skills that those companies need. Many schools fulfill this need by establishing advisory boards with representatives from local companies and institutions. Without input from companies, however, schools are forced to guess which skills they should teach and what equipment they should purchase. Outfitting new biotechnology teaching labs is an expensive proposition, so it’s important that colleges make good choices when deciding which skills will be taught.

Finding work
A local industry is also important as a source of internships and, of course, full-time employment for students that graduate from new biotech programs. Community college students are less mobile than students who leave home to attend four-year institutions. Many of these students want jobs after they finish school. Since community college instructors often know the students pretty well, the instructors are likely to know what happens to students after they finish a program.

If program graduates do not find jobs, this message will be relayed back to their former instructors in a negative feedback loop. Poor job-hunting success makes biotech instructors less likely to recommend a program, and fewer students will translate to a smaller workforce that can be tapped by new companies.


A take-home lesson for economic development groups

Intuitively, it seems that the presence of an educated population would be a positive factor in enticing companies to relocate. It would be wise for economic development groups to realize that community colleges are an important part of the equation and include these institutions in promoting the area. But it is important for these groups to realize, also, that it will be difficult to establish these sorts of programs, in absence of an existing industry, unless there is some assurance that the industry will grow.

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