Biotech Park Inches Forward
Dream still alive for high-tech cluster of companies and jobs centered around UH med school
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Photo Courtesy: Kamehameha Schools
Don’t hold your breath. Building a biotech park and industry around the John A. Burns School of Medicine has not been the slam-dunk it seemed in 2001 when the state Legislature authorized $150 million in bonds to build the new medical school as an engine to charge up Hawaii’s economy after 9/11.
Along the way leadership has changed, key scientists have moved on and the plan has often been mired in political maneuvering, conflicting visions, or the inertia born of making difficult choices over prized real estate.
With only JABSOM — the first of five integral pieces — up and running, there are still barriers to overcome. The new Cancer Research Center of Hawaii appears to be moving ahead, despite a potential court battle with a proposed developer, but three other components are uncertain. Both the Regional Bio-Safety Lab and Phase II of JABSOM are stalled because of funding issues, while the $80 million research facility promised by Kamehameha Schools, one of Kakaako’s largest landowners, is idling while KS continues to work with the Legislature on potential changes in development rules for the area.
“It’s like a ghost town,” declares attorney Jay Fidell, president of ThinkTech Hawaii, who chafes at the project’s glacial speed. “Tumbleweed blows in the streets.”
“Indecision and political infighting” have cost the state five years of forward momentum, maintains renowned infectious disease specialist Dr. Duane Gubler, who had secured almost $50 million in funding to build a world-class bio-safety lab as part of the park. But Gubler has left Hawaii to build a lab in Singapore as a director of the Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School, though he maintains ties with the UH medical school.
Others, who have also dared to imagine biotech in Kakaako, are not so disillusioned, acknowledging that a sea change of this magnitude can take decades.
Jay Fidell, President,
“In general, tech clusters are built over about 30 years,” says Yuka Nagashima, executive director and CEO of the High Technology Development Corp., which is geared to support the growth of high-tech in Hawaii. “Eight years is too short to expect a completed plan or to be able to reap the benefits of a mature industry.
“Look at Georgia (with the Georgia Institute of Technology), Silicon Valley, the North Carolina Research Triangle in the Chapel Hill area — they just didn’t start yesterday. They’re now benefitting from all these years of sticking to their policies and improving upon their implementation. And none of these places would have happened without top-notch research institutions. In other states, there are usually multiple institutions.”
Achieving a critical mass of biotech companies suitable to launch and sustain an industry is something big American cities have been trying to secure for several decades. Fidell, a former head of HTDC, notes that an economic cluster is a basic requirement.
“If you want to build a biotech industry you have to have this kind of critical mass proximity,” he says. “For instance, if a guy loses his job, you want him to be able to walk across the street and get hired the next day by another employer. You want a job safety net under him.”
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