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Biotechnology Comes of Age in Hawaii

By Dr. Carl-Wilhelm Vogel

The last several months have witnessed a sea change for the biotechnology industry in our state. For starters, the legislature provided monies to begin planning for the new UH Biomedical Research Center in Kakaako. The consensus among the biotech cognoscenti in Hawaii is that this is the best thing that could possibly happen to our industry.

As director of Cancer Research Center of Hawaii no one was happier than me about this development. Not only would a state of the art biomedical center be a boon to basic research but medical schools are the focal point around which new companies are created. This model has worked well in the San Francisco Bay area as well as other parts of the country and it can work in Hawaii too. Research attracts the interest of venture capitalists who fund intellectual property created at the University and turn it into products and new companies. This creates new jobs and brings new dollars into the state.

I believe our legislators deserve credit for understanding this precept and taking the initiative to fund this project. They recognize that if Hawaii is to be a player in biotech, we need to invest in and grow talent at UH. What's more, by providing monies, they understand that this signals that Hawaii is showing confidence in the future of biotech-a gesture that will not go unnoticed by Mainland and Asian investors.

Bio Tech Mania

The other major biotech event was the recently convened BIO Asia Pacific Conference held at the Sheraton in April. Billing itself as the first international conference to focus on science business in Asia and the Pacific Rim, the meeting assembled biotech industry executives, scientists and venture capitalists from throughout the world. The ultimate goal of the conference was to provide a venue for life science firms-both here and on the mainland--to invest, license and form partnerships.

There were only about 500 participants who attended the conference, but the numbers, belied the importance of the event. This was the first time we've had a convention that included the crème de la crème of the biotech industry in Hawaii and I couldn't agree more. The mere presence of this organization provided a chance for local firms to interact with the best and brightest in the industry.

And schmooze, we did. Normally to meet a quality VC you'd have to go to Silicon Valley or Asia. Being able to drive over to Waikiki and to discuss international business deals was a rare opportunity for any local company.

Deal making was in the air and according to David Watumull, President of Hawaii Biotech which produces a dengue fever vaccine, the forum opened up a possible agreement with Hyderabad, an India-based concern. If a deal is reached Hawaii Biotech would have a corporate partner able to finance human trials, market and distribute large quantities of vaccine, and seek final drug approval from the Indian government, which would open up India's 900-million-person market to the Oahu company. There's no doubt other local biotech companies will also gain quite a bit from the contacts they made at the conference and in future gatherings of this now yearly forum.

Hawaii-Biotech Valhalla

Taking Hawaii seriously as a place to do business has always been challenging but the conference did give Kama'aina biotech companies and others in the industry and chance to showcase our state as a research center.

Attorney Dick Sherman, an attorney who specializes in biotech and a Managing Officer of QED Technologies (and a principal in an SBIC investment fund), said there are reasons to be bullish on Hawaii's future as a biotech center. The rich environmental diversity of the state, particularly the potential of natural products and natural product derivatives that may be locked up in micro algae or other life forms, could be a potential windfall when treating cancer or other ailments. Natural products are the traditional source of therapeutics for the pharmaceutical industry for instance, the largest selling chemo-therapeutic -- Taxol -- and nearly all antibiotics/anti-infectives are derived from natural products. (Recent discoveries of anti-cancer properties in astaxanthin by Big Island-based Aquasearch as reported by this newspaper, confirm this).

In addition to the rich array of life forms, Hawaii's diverse population, makes it an ideal location for genetic research and clinical trials. Scientists who study the effects of pharmaceuticals on population groups need to look at how drugs react with different ethnic communities. Thus to research properly you need to study a large cross section of the population. Hawaii's multi-ethnic demographics make it an ideal place to do research.

Hawaii can also serve as a gateway to the Pacific Rim, which makes it an ideal location for life science firms from Asia to establish a research presence in the US. Asian pharmaceutical firms are particularly comfortable with natural products' research (a staple of local study) and Hawaii could also serve as a springboard for US biotech firms reaching out to partnerships with Asian companies.

Though we're thankful that the Kakaako bio-med research center is slowly hatching we need state's help in less obvious but equally critical ways. The quality of the public schools plays a vital role in our industry. Work force training, particularly in the high school and college curriculums, is necessary to create a strong technical labor component for laboratory research.

We can have a vibrant biotechnology industry in our state that provides local people with meaningful jobs. With the support of the state and the University we can grow our own indigenous biotech sector in the center of the Pacific Ocean. Just watch-it's already beginning to bloom.

Dr. Carl-Wilhelm Vogel is Director of the Cancer Research of Hawaii. He can be reached at 586-3013 or at cvogel@crch.hawaii.edu.

Published July 22, 2001

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