Biotech leader: Future is tools
• Electronics Ñ not genetic research Ñ is Oregon’s strength, OHSU bioscience guru warns
Oregon Health & Science University's new biotechnology 'czar' Ñ the man who is counted on to turn the university's bioscience discoveries into an engine of economic development for Oregon Ñ harbors no illusions.
In fact, Dr. William New Jr. bluntly says OHSU officials are suffering from 'delusions of national grandeur' in trying to establish Oregon as a major biotechnology research center.
Oregon is 20 to 25 years behind Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area and other leading biotechnology centers when it comes to developing 'all the great glamorous stuff' in genetic research, says New, who has taken joint positions as associate dean for bioengineering at OHSU's OGI School of Science & Engineering and bioscience manager for OHSU.
'Oregon's focus ought to be electronics, computer hardware and software, wireless Ñ the technology 'tool kit,' ' he said.
'Oregon is world-class in electronics. Why would one even think about anything else?'
New, 60, a physician, electrical engineer and businessman, was hired to transform the state's sputtering and comparatively puny biotechnology sector into a viable industry.
New, who will be paid about $170,000, has taken the helm of the university's efforts to establish a nationally recognized biotech research center shortly after a statewide biotech group released a study assessing the state's biotech strengths and weaknesses.
The study, released last month by the Portland-based Oregon Bioscience Association, reached a similar conclusion: Because of its strong technology base, the state's biotech strength is not in drug discovery and development, but in developing medical devices and in making biotech supplies for other genetic researchers.
New's focus is seemingly at odds with that of OHSU's president, Dr. Peter Kohler, and other university administrators as well as state and city officials who have touted biotech and genetic research as an economic boon for Oregon.
In fact, Kohler spearheaded the successful Oregon Opportunity effort by persuading voters last year to approve $200 million in general obligation funds for biotech research at OHSU. The university is raising another $300 million from private sources in its ambitious plan to make Oregon a leader in genetic research.
But New says the state would be better off directing its efforts Ñ at least for now Ñ on the medical device business rather than drug development.
'It requires low amounts of capital, millions not billions of dollars, has a rapid time to market and can be measured in one to two years, not a 10-year horizon,' he said.
Dan Dorsa, OHSU vice president for research Ñ who helped recruit New and will be working closely with him to develop OHSU's biotech efforts Ñ insists that New will not change the direction of the university's research.
'What Bill is reflecting is a bias that comes from his experience,' Dorsa said. 'He believes the ability to move commercialized technologies in the device area is much more rapid than it is in the pharmaceutical or genomics area. That's true. We intend to do both.'
Dorsa said New also will work for the Portland Development Commission and the Oregon Economic & Community Development Department, though his roles with those agencies have not been worked out yet, Dorsa said.
'This idea is that Bill will become a single conduit for passing information about what we're trying to do from all points of view in developing a bioscience industry in Oregon,' he said.
Originally, New was asked to help with the search for a biotech manager, Dorsa said.
'He impressed us with his experience, knowledge and expertise, and his interest in seeing that (developing biotech) happens in Oregon,' he said. 'He sees the potential of what we can do.'
A patent-holding M.D.
New is particularly qualified for the job, Dorsa said. He has a medical degree from Duke University (Kohler's alma mater) and electrical engineering and business management degrees from Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.
He has invented a number of medical devices Ñ he holds 15 patents Ñ including noninvasive blood-monitoring equipment that is used in most operating rooms in U.S. hospitals.
'One of the things he articulates nicely is that, because of the technology industry here, it makes a lot of sense that we capitalize on that line of sight. We fully agree with his counsel, but that doesn't mean we'll only focus on that. We'll focus on all opportunities,' Dorsa said.
News's hiring is good news to members of the newly reorganized Oregon Bioscience Association, said Ann Bunnenberg, president of Electrical Geodesics Inc., a Eugene medical device company, and a chairwoman of the association.
'He is somebody with an extraordinary track record as an entrepreneur,' she said. 'He's well thought of in the device community and is well-funded with capital-venture sources.'
The association's study Ñ which reinforced New's observation that the state's strong technology industry will boost medical-device businesses Ñ 'did a good job in identifying our areas of strength,' she said.
The medical device category accounted for 46 percent of the state's bioscience-industry revenue in 2001 and 39 percent of those employed in the industry.
The reagents manufacturing category Ñ which includes supplies used by biotech researchers Ñ generated 20 percent of bioscience revenue and employed 16 percent of the industry's employees.
Drug discovery and development generated about 10 percent of the industry's revenues and accounted for about 21 percent of the employees.
'It's always good to build on your strengths,' said Sandra Shotwell, a consultant with Alta Biomedical Group, which conducted the study.
'There may not be the same blue-sky opportunities, but there also is not the same delay and indefinite time or risk.'
The association's new co-chairman is Lewis Nasher, chief executive officer of a 15-year-old medical device company called NeuroCom Inc., based in Clackamas.
The company makes equipment that helps diagnose people, especially the elderly, with balance problems.
NeuroCom's equipment is found in hospitals throughout the world, Nasher said, but still has captured only a small part of the market.
The spinoff model
The company, he said, is an example of 'the kind of spinoff that goes from academic research to commercialization in Oregon, which is what we're trying to get more of.'
Nasher said the science behind the company was developed at the state's Neurological Sciences Institute, which is now part of OHSU, where he was a senior research scientist.
'Originally, the company was funded by Small Business Innovation Research grants,' he said. The company, which employs 25, has tremendous growth potential because of the aging population and the fact that dizziness and balance trouble are problems in older people.
Small companies such as Bunnenberg's and Nasher's fit into New's strategy for biotech growth in Oregon.
The bioscience association's leaders said access to capital remains the largest barrier to developing the biotech industry in Oregon.
'Our focus next year needs to be finding capital for Oregon's companies,' Bunnenberg said.
New said he will focus on 'finding new models of creating wealth.'
'Oregon for the last generation,' he concluded, 'has been like a British commonwealth, sending off our raw goods and buying them back as imports. That's a colonial model. We must create a capital we can exploit.'