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Zack Hutchins
Director of Communications

May 24, 2000

Statewide life-sciences 'corridor' proposed

New York State's business community, research institutions, and state government should collaborate to develop a statewide "corridor" of new research and business activity to foster new research and business development related genomics and the life sciences, a Cornell University scientist has proposed.

The corridor would be a kind of virtual research institution that would span the state and involve many public and private universities, companies, and government laboratories, said Steven Tanksley, professor of plant breeding at Cornell. Tanksley made the proposal May 18 at a two-day conference on genomics and life sciences sponsored by The Business Council and Cornell.

The conference was attended by top academic, business, and state government leaders interested in the economic development potential of the life sciences. Both Hunter Rawlings III, president of Cornell, and Daniel B. Walsh, president/CEO of The Business Council, spoke at the conference and emphasized the potential benefits of an expanded intellectual and economic emphasis on the life sciences.

For information how genomics and the life sciences can drive economic development, click here.

New York's position in the life sciences: New York State already has some 270 companies involved in the life sciences, with 30,000 employees, Tanksley said. However, New York is falling behind other states, both in attracting its share of a huge federal research investment and in the emergence of life sciences-related business.

For example, in the last 10 years, New York institutions have fallen behind other states' institutions in both research and training in the life sciences. New York's proportion of National Institutes of Health grants has dropped by 30 percent in that period, even as NIH has enjoyed the largest proposed budget increases in its history, with much of the new money earmarked for research in this area, Tanksley said.

Much of this growth in research in life sciences is focused on genomics, a still-emerging field that seeks to understand the structure and functions of genes in living organisms.

The potential for New York State growth driven by life sciences: Because New York has so many world-class public and private research institutions, it has the potential to be a hub of research and economic activity in this area, several speakers observed.

The life-sciences industry "locates near academic institutions with strong research and training programs in the life sciences, said Pearl M. Kamer, an economist who presented the results of an analysis of how a life sciences corridor would affect New York's economy. As several speakers noted, New York has many such institutions, including universities, museums, government-sponsored and private research institutions. In contrast, Michigan, which is investing $1 billion in the life sciences, has only two major universities active in these areas.

Although there are "clusters" of life-sciences industry in many parts of New York state, a statewide corridor is needed to "enable existing clusters of the life sciences industry to attain the critical mass needed for future growth," she said.

"The potential payoff [of a life-sciences corridor] in terms of scientific breakthroughs is huge," Kamer said. "The potential payoff in terms of New York state economic development is equally huge."

Kamer's study focused on the effects of four institutions with extensive research in the life sciences: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, both on Long Island; Cornell University; and New York University and the Mount Sinai Medical School.

The life sciences 'corridor' proposed for New York State: The Cornell proposal for a life-sciences corridor did not spell out details of how the corridor would work. Instead, Tanksley urged the state to facilitate creation of the corridor by creating a "Life Sciences Research and Development Fund," which he said could be administered by the New York State Office of Science, Technology and Academic Research (NYSTAR).

Tanksley said the proposed state investment is needed for several purposes: to fund activities, equipment, and personnel to create a "virtual information network" among universities; to provide seed money for major research projects involving more than one institution; and to provide matching funds to support other grant proposals to upgrade research facilities.

Because the effort envisioned is so expansive and expensive, no one research institution could possibly develop and execute it alone, Tanksley said. The best possible approach is a collaborative statewide approach with active planning and participation of many public and private institutions and sustained and significant state funding, he added.

Robert King, chancellor of the State University of New York, agreed.

"A successful genomics research strategy requires not only a multidisciplinary approach but a multi-campus one as well," he said in a keynote address. "New York needs to keep up with other states that have made substantial investments to attract both research dollars and the new companies spinning off from the discoveries."

The effect of life sciences on economic development: Several speakers at the conference said that the intellectual, technical, and business innovations in the 21st century will be dominated by the life sciences in the same way that advances in physics drove so many advances of the 20th century.

"Life sciences research is big business," said Kamer. "Biotechnology is probably New York's best buffer against economic decline."

She noted, for example, that the life sciences-related industry is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy; the pharmaceutical industry alone grew by 12 percent globally last year.

Other states' investments in life sciences: New York is falling behind other states in this area in part because many other states are aggressively supporting their universities and business communities in this field, said Mark Dibner, president of the Institute for Biotechnology Information in North Carolina.

In North Carolina, for example, the state has invested $114 million in biotechnology in the last 15 years, with the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, created in 1984, as catalyst, Dibner said. That $114 million investment has produced more than $1.8 billion in additional investments and funding, he added.

This support has been directed toward recruitment of new faculty, seed grants for individual scientists, support for university research programs, Dibner said. The state has also support development of its future workforce in these fields by training public-school teachers and developing bioscience curricula for high schools, community colleges, and colleges and universities, he said.

Other states are also investing heavily in the life sciences, he said. For example, Connecticut is investment $40 million in such priorities as wet lab space and seed funding. And Michigan is investment $1 billion to support biotechnology growth.

Nationally, there are some 1300 biotechnology firms, including 200 established corporations, Dibner said. This $20 billion industry represents nearly 500,000 jobs, and it is still growing, Dibner said.

Russell W. Bessette, executive director of the New York State Office of Science, Technology and Academic Research (NYSTAR), praised the collaborative effort by Cornell and The Business Council to conduct the conference.

"When academia and industry team together, powerful things can happen," he said in remarks at the beginning of the conference "That's why Governor Pataki and the Legislature created NYSTAR and why we are working to encourage and expand high-tech academic research and economic development in New York."