Originally created 03/20/01

Augusta gets advice on research park



If Augusta wants to have a research park that attracts and fosters a biotechnology sector, it needs to build on local strengths such as the Medical College of Georgia and have unanimous support, said officials with a biotech park in Virginia.

Augusta can learn a few things from the Virginia Bio Technology Research Park in Richmond, Va.

To begin with, don't build small and buy land in the area while it's cheap, said Robert Skunda, the president and chief executive officer of the park.

And get going. The competition will only ratchet up as states such as Michigan and Illinois prepare to invest billions in what is now best referred to as the "life sciences," said Eugene Trani, the president of Virginia Commonwealth University and the chairman of the park's board.

The two addressed the monthly meeting of the Georgia Medical Center Authority, which has been charged with encouraging the transfer of research discoveries at MCG into business and fostering biotechnology growth in the state and Augusta.

The authority, funded by a $1 million grant from Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp., approved a start-up budget of about $550,000 to establish the authority and explore building a research park.

The Richmond facility could provide a good model of success. Since being founded in 1992, the research park has six buildings and plans for more, employs more than 800 people, has attracted more than $130 million in capital investment and created 24 start-up companies, Mr. Skunda said. Its incubator stays full and is in fact, too small, he said. And, it points out the need to have affiliated buildings for companies to graduate to as they grow and where the rent costs can be controlled to aid the fledgling companies, Mr. Skunda said.

In the same manner as the Georgia authority, the Richmond authority has the ability to float bonds and has been aided by help from the state and a commitment from Virginia Commonwealth to complete the buildings.

"Someone or some entity is going to have to step up to the plate and back the financing of those facilities," Mr. Skunda said.

With technology exploding, "the competition is ferocious" to stay at the forefront of the growing sector, Dr. Trani said. The state of Michigan has pledged $50 million a year for the next 20 years for a life sciences initiative involving many of its universities, Dr. Trani said. Illinois has pledged more than $1 billion to a similar effort.

As the 19th century saw advances in chemistry and the 20th century was dominated by physics, "clearly this is the century of life sciences," Dr. Trani said.

The key for Augusta will be "trying to build on the long history of scientifically based employers in the Augusta area," Dr. Trani said.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213.