Life-sciences industry hit by government cutbacks

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Disaster averted.

One of Augusta's two biotech incubators will not close in two months.

With $300,000 in the state's budget for the Georgia Medical Center Authority, which runs the Augusta BioBusiness Center on Broad Street, the center, filled with fledgling biotech companies, is secure until July 2010.

At the beginning of this year, the governor slashed the budget to nothing, forcing the staff to beseech state and local politicians to keep the 2-year-old center going.

The three companies that occupy the Augusta BioBusiness Center employ 50 people and have a payroll of more than $3 million.

"You've got high-paid, upper-strata -- especially for our area -- employees there," said George Snelling, the chairman of the medical center authority. That average salary is $67,568, according to the authority.

Mr. Snelling said he visited Gov. Sonny Perdue when the budget for the authority was cut in the middle of state budget cuts.

"He decided we were a viable organization and put the money back in. We were cut to zero. We pled our case," Mr. Snelling said.

The funding for fiscal year 2010, which begins July 1, is still not as much as it received in the last budget, $414,000.

"The main thing is: We've got jobs," Mr. Snelling said.

With the future of the incubator secure until 2010, members of the group, called Augusta Life Sciences, will be making connections this week in Atlanta in an effort to gain more occupants -- or standalone companies -- moving to the city.

Walter Sprouse, the executive director of the Development Authority of Richmond County, is a member of the Augusta contingent that will be at Georgia Bio 2009, an international convention in Atlanta from Monday to Thursday that will be attended by most of the world's top biotech companies.

Mr. Sprouse said there are 30 companies going to the convention that are targets for attracting to Augusta.

Three of those companies -- a medical-device maker and two pharmaceutical firms -- were in Augusta during the Masters Tournament for the state's Red Carpet Tour.

Mr. Sprouse said he suspects they are expanding.

"We have appointments to see them next week in Atlanta at Bio," he said. "They are doing their research now on what they need to be doing six years out. Our goal is to try to be in their plans."

Mr. Sprouse said attracting biotech firms is a long, drawn-out process.

This is the eighth year that Augusta has had a booth at the convention, which was in San Diego last year.

He calls the marketing efforts a "coordinated dance" of working the local booth and hunting for companies at their own.

"We follow up; that's why we do so much traveling after bio," Mr. Sprouse said.

Said Mr. Snelling: "You've got to provide them decent places and decent rents in order to attract these kinds of firms. The fact that we've got MCG here is a huge 'up' in terms of taking a path down that direction."

The Medical College of Georgia is the home of the city's other biotech incubator.

Atlanta, Athens and Augusta are the hubs for life sciences and biotech companies in the state. Atlanta leads the way with 230 of them, according to a survey conducted by the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth. Athens is second with 32 firms, and Augusta is home to 18.

In 2007, private businesses in that industry provided 15,190 jobs and more than $961 million in wages.

"Georgia's life-sciences industry has grown much faster than the state's overall economy," wrote Jeff Humphreys, the center's director.

In Augusta, both incubators are filled.

The medical center authority is still considering an expansion for its 16,000-square-foot space at Broad and 11th streets. Requests for 4,000 square feet of additional space from companies are pending, said an authority memo.

"We may be doing some joint ventures with development authority to do another building and attract some biomedical," Mr. Snelling said. "This thing could grow and we could move out of this building at some point and get some county funding."

He said the group is searching for something twice the size that it has now, perhaps even stretching it to 50,000 square feet.

Said Mr. Sprouse: "Were supportive of what they're wanting to do. It is vital for the overall picture of economic development for the incubators to continue to progress and to expand."

Reach Tim Rausch at (706) 823-3352 or timothy.rausch@augustachronicle.com.

AUGUSTA'S BIOTECH BASE


Company Product focus
Augusta Laboratory Inc. Diagnostics
Claripath Laboratories Inc. Diagnostics
Covidien/Kendall Healthcare Devices
EKA Chemicals Inc. Industrial
Elanco Agricultural
EMthrax Biologics
HE Inc./Ammi Inc. Devices
Integrated Science Systems Devices
Lexicor Medical Technologies Devices
Life Alarm Inc. Devices
Mullins Pathology & Cytology Services, diagnostics
NutraSweet Co. Agricultural
Prime Behavior Testing Labs Research and development
Quality Assurance Service Corp. Services
ReachMDconsult Inc. Health informatics
Weylchem US Chemicals
Xytex Corp. Diagnostics
Xytex Research Blood, organ bank

Source: University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth


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