Biotech boosters expect research center

The Houston Chronicle
May 11, 2004, Tuesday

Texas Medical Center officials and the governor are expected to announce today the creation of an advanced diagnostic imaging research center in the University of Texas Research Park.

Funded through a partnership between medical center institutions and GE Healthcare, the center will research and develop new medical devices and scanning technologies.

The Texas Enterprise Fund, used by the governor's office to lure companies to the state, contributed $25 million to the project. The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Texas Health Science Center together put in $25 million. An additional $5 million came from the University of Texas System.

GE will provide equipment and technology and create hundreds of jobs, according to sources familiar with the project.

The governor's office did not return calls, and GE officials declined to comment until after today's announcement.

GE's arrival is only a step toward spurring the growth of biotechnology in Houston, but those vying for a local tech hub welcomed the news, as the company will likely serve as an anchor tenant.

"Once you get one big company, it's probably easier to get another big company," said Jacqueline Northcut Waugh, president of BioHouston, a nonprofit group founded by local academic and research institutions.

To create a successful biotech center, Houston needs collaborative research institutions, access to seed capital and well-established, successful firms.

Having an established company in the area means local startups and new technologies coming out of the medical center will have one more resource to tap when trying to commercialize technologies they develop.

"You've got a large company that has the resources to develop these products now," she said.

For the Health Science Center, a biotech park means a place for faculty to develop their ideas into commercial interests and somewhere students can train and get practical work experience. Large companies in the park will likely have chances to license researchers' technologies and market to the city's hospitals.

The 100-acre UT Research Park south of the Texas Medical Center currently houses one research building and will be home to a Proton Therapy Center now under construction.

The arrival of the GE facility comes after a rocky start for the park, which was originally called the Southeast Texas BioTechnology Park when it was announced about four years ago.

Business leaders have been trying to expand the city's biotech industry for years because of its promise of good-paying jobs and the need to diversify the area's energy-heavy economy.

Houston's life science industry currently includes 70 companies and 1,700 employees, according to BioHouston.

But a lack of venture capital combined with a scientific community that doesn't often test the commercial viability of its research has kept the industry from emerging full-on.

"Most venture capital for the sciences is located on the East and West Coasts," Ernie Cockrell, chairman of Cockrell Interests, told a group of business leaders at a luncheon last week. "Texas gets an F. The reason is that most VC and angel investing in Texas has been in oil and gas exploration and in real estate. The good news is that this is changing."