Life sciences finds growth spurt

Central Texas is known nationwide for its tech industry, quality schools and quality of life, but many in the life sciences industry say the area is also on its way to becoming a life sciences hub.

The life sciences industry includes medical device manufacturers and biotechnology firms. Many of these companies are choosing to launch or expand in Central Texas.

From 2005-15, the Austin metropolitan area saw a 54.5 percent increase in the number of life sciences companies, according to data from the Texas Workforce Commission. Most of that growth came from medical equipment and supplies manufacturers, scientific research and development services, and medical and diagnostic laboratories.

“You’re seeing Round Rock becoming that life science, bioscience hub for the future,” said Ben White, vice president of economic development for the Round Rock Chamber. “Why that’s important is those health care jobs, those bioscience jobs are the jobs of the future.”

Several years ago the chamber created a life sciences division in its economic development department to attract more of those companies. The area’s desirable school district, higher education institutions and health care hub make it attractive to life sciences companies, White said.

“[The schools] are doing a tremendous job educating our kids, and they’re turning out to be great workers. It doesn’t hurt that this area is a highly desirable area to live,” he said. “There’s a pretty good work-life balance, and it is very attractive to many of these workers.”

Having an available workforce is also key, and White says the chamber works with Round Rock ISD, Austin Community College and Texas State University. Through the chamber’s externship program, educational faculty can spend time working with life science employers to take knowledge back to their classrooms.

When The University of Texas Dell Medical School opens to its first class this fall, White said that will only further help the region.

“That’s just going to bring more research money into the area, more development of products to the area, and I think we’re all going to benefit from that school,” he said.

The Georgetown Chamber of Commerce also has been focused on the life sciences industry. It helped create the Texas Life-Sciences Collaboration Center, which assists startups in their early and clinical stages, Executive Director Mike Douglas said. Companies rent lab space at the center and can use resources, such as the wet lab.

In January 2014, TLCC received $1 million in state funding to partner with ACC for a training program and learning space in the incubator.

“We felt that was an interesting approach to this concept of building that infrastructure in Central Texas at least from the ground up with an educational resource,” he said.

The region is not yet known as a life sciences hub such as the San Francisco Bay area, San Diego, Boston/Cambridge and Houston. But John Burns, president of nonprofit BioAustin, said Austin offers something the other areas cannot, including a business-friendly environment.

“The Austin area sells itself. It’s a great place to live,” he said. “The cost of living is so high in San Diego and the San Francisco Bay area and Boston that this is an attractive alternative.”

To further the industry’s growth, Burns said these companies need funding to either grow or launch a company. However, for investors, the return is not always quick, he said.

“Typically to get a health-related product to market, whether it’s a diagnostic [test], drug or medical device, you have to do clinical trials frequently, and then you have to get FDA approval; that process can take five to 10 years,” he said.

BioAustin aims to help life sciences grow and prosper, and Burns said what would help the industry grow more is state dollars to match federal grants.

“As we continue to grow and develop, I think we’ll start being recognized more by the big investment groups on the West Coast and New England, and they’ll start looking more seriously at helping financially the local companies grow,” he said.

KJ Scientific

Several companies have benefited from renting space inside the Texas Life-Sciences Collaboration Center in Georgetown.

KJ Scientific founder and CEO Karla Johanning said she discovered the TLCC by chance after searching for web lab space in the area. KJ Scientific is an environmental testing company that uses innovative technology to test chemicals such as pesticides and personal care products to see if they are harmful to the environment or humans, she said.

“I have been involved in environmental science for many years trying to understand how the environment is affecting us because of what we have done to it,” Johanning said via email. “We all have a responsibility to make things better to future generations, and we are happy to be at the forefront of this.”

The lack of wet lab space is one challenge life science companies such as KJ Scientific face, she said, but being located in an incubator can help startups lower their costs.

“The landscape is changing, of course,” Johanning said. “[Information technology] is huge in Austin, but biotech is coming behind and we lack the infrastructure for that.”

She has worked in other cities such as New Orleans and said Austin offers many benefits, including an educated community.

“[There are] lots of young people graduating looking for jobs,” she said. “We have [Austin Community College] close by and the biotechnology program, and that is huge to be able to get a workforce that has been trained.”

By Amy Denney
Amy has worked for Community Impact Newspaper since September 2010, serving as reporter and then senior editor for the Northwest Austin edition and covering transportation. She is now managing editor for the nine publications in the Central Texas area.


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