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August 1st, 2011 - Dean Anderson

Critical mass

Bioscience industry looks for next breakthrough


A $6.7 billion economic impact. Some 51,000 jobs spread over an 11-county Central Oklahoma area. When it comes to the economy, the bioscience industry has established itself as a major player in the metro.

“I think it comes as a surprise to people,” says Sheri Stickley (pictured), president and CEO of the Oklahoma Bioscience Association.

From clinical pharmaceutical trials to nanotechnology, she says the bioscience industry is thriving because of a willingness to collaborate, a surplus of available research space and willing capital sources.

In May, United Airlines announced a new nonstop flight between Oklahoma City and San Francisco. Those in the industry say that’s a tip of the cap to Oklahoma’s bioscience growth.

“The response was overwhelming,” Stickley says. “When United made the decision, they cited the interest of the bioscience community as at least one of the factors in making their decision.”

Prior to that announcement, Oklahoma City-based Selexys Pharmaceuticals announced it was entering Phase 1 clinical trials for a new drug treating sickle-cell disease. Phase 1 trials are a big event, given the amount of research, development and capital involved just to get a company to that point.

Craig Shimasaki knows the processes all too well.

With 23 of his 27 years in the field spent in Oklahoma City, he has seen the local bioscience landscape take a huge stride.

With a bachelor’s in biochemistry and a doctorate in molecular biology, Shimasaki completed an MBA and turned in his lab coat for a tie as a bioscience consultant, founding BioSource Consulting Group.

“When I came here 23 years ago, it was difficult,” he says of trying to get his venture up and running. “Now it’s not as difficult because of the facilities and the incentives, programs and grants and the work systems in place. Certainly, scientists  like to come places because of the science, but they also need the infrastructure at work. Oklahoma is now getting to be known for that support.”

Josh O’Brien, director of entrepreneurial development for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber and i2E, a private nonprofit focused on growing the industry in Oklahoma, says that in terms of capital, bioscience has hit the same roadblocks as other industries the last two years, but the momentum locally remains, thanks to collaboration.

“If you look historically at the Health Center and how it was created, there’s a history of that, but I think in the last decade it’s been more so,” he says. “I think we have to leverage the assets to get to where we need to be. I think there are many partners in the chamber, OK Bioscience, i2E, (Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology) and the Presbyterian Health Foundation who are not only ready, but able, to assist.”

OCAST is the state agency responsible for growing the industry. In May, the group approved 30 health research projects and pumped more than $4 million in funding those projects.

Stickley, O’Brien and Shimasaki all agree that continued commitment by the state and other investors will be key to maximizing the industry’s economic potential here at home.

“The important thing is we’re all trying to push that rock up the hill,” O’Brien says.

Photos by Mark Hancock

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