Someone important asked me to write about the biosciences in Phoenix and Arizona as the effort marks its tenth anniversary. This is fitting because I vividly remember the day I was called to the office of then Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza where he laid out the opportunity that the city had to lure star researcher Jeff Trent and the International Genomics Consortium. As a columnist for the Arizona Republic, I wrote dozens of articles to explain and advocate for this unique chance to leapfrog out of an economy that had become dangerously dependent on housing and population growth, and was falling behind on almost every measure of economic and social well-being. One column was an open letter to Dr. Trent — both of us are natives and this was from the heart — that he later told me played a big role in his decision to come home and establish T-Gen.
With Mary Jo Waits, then of the Morrison Institute, I worked to develop a "meds and eds" strategy to leverage biosciences and education; government, non-profits and eventually for-profit organizations, to create a major bio hub. As Waits repeatedly said, what if we could lay claim to the cure for cancer being discovered in downtown Phoenix? I mention my role for the sake of those who constantly yowl that I "hate Arizona," do nothing constructive, am a "quitter" or some guy in Seattle who spends his time picking on Phoenix.
The Flinn Foundation led the development of a strong strategic roadmap, as well as providing $50 million in funding. Gov. Janet Napolitano was supportive and the Legislature was dragged aboard a statewide push including leaders in Tucson and Flagstaff, as well as the Gila River Indian Community. At City Hall, Deputy City Manager Sheryl Sculley marshaled the bureaucracy to assemble land for the venture on the old Phoenix Union High School campus and oversee its redeployment. More land north was available for expansion; it had been set aside for the abortive attempt to win the NFL stadium that instead went to a cotton field west of Glendale. New ASU President Michael Crow instantly grasped the potential and soon the U of A was planning a medical school on the site. When ground was broken for the T-Gen building, even then Rep. J.D. Hayworth, hater of all things gub'ment, showed up to bask in what appeared to be a moment of history on par with the CAP. Hard as it is to believe now, it was a time of breathtaking hope.
The plan was to use T-Gen and evolving research on the human genome to create a dense "(lab) bench to bedside" node on the Phoenix Biosciences Campus. Trent understood that the model should be the Texas Medical Center in Houston, the largest such complex in the world. It includes research, medical schools and other educational institutions, and hospitals in 280 buildings on a 1,300 acre site. Eventually, the Phoenix campus could also lure pharmaceutical and medical device companies, too. Nearby was land for "blue collar tech" sectors such as biomedical manufacturing that would have been relatively easily poached from California.
The usual "veto elite" weighed in against even trying to attract T-Gen and the IGC, prominent among them a Republic columnist and former political operative. Among their complaints, aside from anything involving gub'ment, was that the effort would not create many jobs. True, only a small number of scientists initially went to work at T-Gen. But the wider meds-and-eds and biomed manufacturing strategies promised very large employment gains, and much better wages than are typical in Phoenix. In Houston, the TMC alone employs 92,500, as well as having 34,000 full-time students.
The anti faction — which is typically against everything that improves Phoenix but somehow is never blamed for "hating Arizona" — had little understanding of what the venture would require for sustained success. For example, the need and relatively long timeline to gain federal grants for the scientists who were leaving existing institutions to take a chance in Phoenix. Or the need for predictability in policymaking: Every time the Legislature balked at consistent funding and incentives for bio research, it sent a message that would make a scientist, entrepreneur or other innovator worry about the state's commitment. Few policymakers understood the competitive challenges or why the "cluster strategy" adopted after the 1990 real-estate crash had failed — and the lessons that were critical to apply to the new endeavor. Why sustained public-private partnerships and focus were essential (it took North Carolina decades of public funding to bring Research Triangle Park into the big leagues). Nor did most of the congressional delegation understand the need to steer federal research dollars to Phoenix. The antis never came around.
Still, not only did the project move ahead, but the Legislature was also strong-armed into helping establish Science Foundation Arizona and recruiting Bill Harris from Science Foundation Ireland to run it. The mission was to fund promising science, including that beyond biotech and biomedicine.
Two influential groups were never on board: The Real Estate Industrial Complex. And, especially as far as the downtown biomedical campus, the big hospitals: Catholic Healthcare West, which operates "Mr. Joes," and Banner, owner of Good Samaritan Hospital and many more. This would have profound consequences.
Ten years later, some progress has been made. But it has been agonizingly slow, especially for the downtown Biosciences Campus. Phoenix has not made the leap we hoped, where it would be at least within striking distance of Boston, San Diego, Seattle, Research Triangle Park and other leading bio centers.
What happened, why, and whether the situation can change for the better are topics I will discuss in a future column.