“If you look at Phoenix of old — if the pandemic had happened in the Phoenix of old — we’d have immediately launched into a recession, like a lot of other top markets have launched into a quasi-recession. But because Phoenix is so diversified in so many industries, the city manager announced last week we have a $76-million surplus this year. Not in a recession. We are moving stronger than we ever have before because we’ve focused the last decade on absolute diversification, with biosciences being a leading sector,” said Christine Mackay, community and economic development director at City of Phoenix, in an interview for this story in late February.
“We have top-ranked healthcare organizations that provide top-notch care, are innovative and known for research excellence,” says Claudia Whitehead, bioscience healthcare program manager in the City of Phoenix’s Economic Development Department. The long list includes Mayo Clinic, Banner Health and Phoenix Children’s Hospital. On the academic stage, Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, The University of Arizona, Grand Canyon University, Creighton University and Tufts are powerhouses with their own innovators and support systems in Phoenix. And, of course, leading research institution TGen (Translational Genomics Research Institute) makes its home in Phoenix.
And if that’s not enough to draw more companies into our bioscience and healthcare industry, there’s an extra edge Phoenix has: “We’re attractive to companies outside because we have a business plan to work together,” Whitehead notes, referring to Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap. “Arizona is the only state that has a blueprint like this,” she says, pointing to the Phoenix Bioscience Campus — which was renamed last month Phoenix Bioscience Core as a truer reflection of its essence — as one of its great accomplishments.
Christine Mackay, community and economic development director at City of Phoenix, says, “When you look at what Phoenix did in creating the PBC here in Downtown Phoenix — although bioscience and healthcare were happening all around us, it really was the first time someone had driven a stake in the ground and said, ‘We’re going to claim this as ours. And this is going to be a strategic move forward in attracting companies.’ And the acquisition and the creation of the 30 acres and the very strategic focus to go after TGen, to go after Dr. Jeffrey Trent … I mean, talk about a time when it took an entire village. This wasn’t the city doing it by itself; this was the state and the county and private sector and foundations and healthcare and the city and others really working to recruit him back to Phoenix. And Phoenix built the TGen building and Dr. Trent is in there and he’s been there since the building opened in 2006. That really was that launch pad for Phoenix to claim this sector as its own.”
Phoenix had to overcome a kinetic energy that had become established in that realm, as this anecdote Mackay shares illustrates: “We would be recruiting at Bio International in the early 2000s, and other cities — Boston and San Francisco, Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia — each would pat us on the head and say, ‘Aren’t you guys just cute.’ They were 100 years in the market, 40 years in the market, 50 years in the market.” Their message to the Phoenix delegation was, “Yeah, guys, we’ve got this sector sewn up. Please don’t even try. There’s just not much you can do there,” Mackay recalls, relating that, instead, “True to Arizona mentality, we just put our heads down and said, ‘Yeah, sorry about your lock. We’re going to invade in your territory.’ And we did. And it was because we all worked together. It was a sector that, as Mayor Gallego likes to say, ‘The cure for cancer’s going to come through Phoenix.’ And that was the mantra starting in 2001.”
“The City of Phoenix has been very intentional about working with our partners to diversify the economy,” says Mayor Kate Gallego. Stressing the importance of having industries that will thrive regardless of what’s happening with the economy, she notes, “Healthcare and bioscience is one where there both an economic and human impact that benefit the city and our residents.”
Pointing out that not only is this an industry that produces higher-wage jobs so one can really have a career and supports people from a wide variety of academic backgrounds, but, she continues, “It’s one that really makes sense for our city given our great university, community colleges and private-sector partners.”
There’s a quality-of-life aspect, as she says, “I also want to make sure that, if our residents have a difficult medical diagnosis, they can get the very best treatments in this community. It’s exciting to me that people come from all over the world to get neurological treatment in this city. It is great news that you can participate in clinical trials and other drug development, therapy development and development of medical devices right here in this community.
“Before I ran for office, I worked with someone whose child had a really hard time gaining weight. TGen helped them with diagnosis and treatment,” Gallego relates, noting the value of parents sleeping better knowing can get treatment for their children.
And, to the point of this article, there is also an amazing economic impact. “The industry has a multiplier of 2.27; for every dollar in, there’s an additional $1.27 generated into our economy. The employment multiplier is 5; for every bioscience job created, they create an additional four jobs,” Gallego says. “That helps strengthen and diversify our economy.”
Regarding other economic sectors that add benefit to and are benefited by growth in the biosciences, Mayor Gallego relates, “Phoenix is now known as an area of excellence for developing, building, designing medical and healthcare facilities. We have many of the top architecture and engineering firms that work on these projects that tend to be very technical. We have construction firms that are sought after all over the country to build hospitals and advanced facilities. We’ve seen a direct capital investment of more than $3.5 billion since 2019, and the growth of 5.5 million square feet of primary facilities. That also is an area I feel Phoenix is a leader nationally and is recognized for building some of the best facilities. In addition to staffing them.”
Collaboration among many parties enabled Phoenix Bioscience Core to become a reality. But credit for spearheading the effort goes to the Flinn Foundation and its creation of the Bioscience Roadmap.
Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap
The Flinn Foundation had been predominantly a healthcare foundation for the State of Arizona since the 1960s, having been funded by cardiologist Robert Flinn and his wife, Irene. But as the millennium came to a close, there were a number of new foundations cropping up in Arizona, especially in the Phoenix area, that were also interested in funding healthcare and human and social services in Arizona. “We saw that as an opportunity for the Flinn Foundation to go more deeply in one specific area of healthcare and try to make a bigger difference through our philanthropic dollars and programs and systems,” says Brad Halvorsen, executive vice president of the Flinn Foundation.
A long period of research and talking with community leaders about areas within health where the foundation could make the biggest difference pointed it to the biosciences.
The Flinn Foundation had, of course, some familiarity with that sector. “But,” Halvorsen says, “we were told Arizona had a lot of assets in the biosciences — this is 20 years ago — and there’s a good amount of excellence in Arizona and if were somehow well organized and properly funded, bigger things could happen. So, at that point, the Flinn Foundation decided to go specifically into biosciences, where we previously were funding in the broader healthcare world.”
In 2002, the Flinn Foundation commissioned Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap — which was really a comprehensive SWAT analysis that was done on Arizona’s bioscience sector — from Battelle Memorial Institute, which has a unit that specializes in building regional high-technology economies.
The purpose was two-fold: to give the Flinn Foundation a better idea of what was happening in biosciences and how it could make the biggest difference, and to have Battelle give back a strategic action plan of goals, objectives and action steps that could help Arizona build a framework to take the next steps to strengthen and advance its bioscience sector.
Before the end of that year, the Bioscience Roadmap was launched. It was informed by a steering committee that had been put together earlier that year of science leaders, community leaders, business leaders, government leaders to help Battelle understand what we had here. Noting it was not just the Flinn Foundation but a community effort, Halvorsen says, “Once launched, it really galvanized as a statewide plan that various groups and institutions involved in biosciences at the time were really galvanized around, and we’ve been orchestrating ever since.”
The Roadmap addresses strategies meant to build Arizona’s research base; a hub of entrepreneurial enterprises and entrepreneurial-based ecosystem, bioscience talent; build current jobs and future jobs; and more. “It’s a massive plan that hits on all spectrums of developing a bioscience base, from the research end over to the commercialization end, and the other aspects that are important as well, like workforce development, for instance,” Halvorsen says.
“When the Roadmap first came together, it really was a convening point to bring together the disparate groups that make up a healthy bioscience sector,” Halvorsen says. A steering committee was created to oversee the process with Flinn. And once the Roadmap plan was available, numerous committees were created, made up of groups from all around the state to work on specifics of various aspect of the Roadmap. Some were science committees that worked on collaborative plans for areas like cancer research or bioengineering; others were more business oriented, like communications or workforce development; some looked at how to generate more risk capital for Arizona; some were even government relations. “Those committees and the steering committee brought together institutions around the same table that might not have done so before — institutions that were working on the same thing or had similar goals that would start to work together collaboratively.”
Mayor Gallego was a city council member at that time, and she represented the biomedical campus. “We looked all over for the right partners as we grew it,” she relates. “When I visited Wexford Science and Technology in Baltimore, I felt like we found the right partner. They understand how to support innovative companies and create the right environment where people can come together, where they have the right programming, the right business support.” The important question to address: How do you connect medical experts with experts in running a business and recruit them to come to Downtown Phoenix?
“We also try to support our companies in growing and getting investment. We host a large delegation at the annual Bio International Conference. To brag a little bit as mayor, we had three of our bioscience startups as finalists at the Bio International Conference competing with companies from all over the world. So, it’s great news that we have these amazing companies and I hope it’s a point of pride for our residents that we’re helping them to grow. And we are pleased to help connect companies with the resources they need, whether it’s investment, or partners at our Pinnacle system to try to market or do trials. So, I hope our companies feel supported.
“Sometimes I have gotten involved when someone needs to recruit a top scientist or hear about options for schools, if they’re moving their kids here.” Saying she hopes people feel like this is the world’s biggest small town when it comes to our bio community, she adds, “But it’s getting a lot bigger” and cites CBRE’s recent report recognizing Phoenix as No. 1 in life science jobs and in the top five in the nation’s emerging life science markets.
A Collaborative Environment
Noting that’s one of the hallmarks of a successful bioscience hub is a collaborative environment where groups are working with one another, complementing one another’s efforts, Halvorsen emphasizes, “That’s really one of the gems of the whole Roadmap experience: It has brought together groups and individuals to work collaboratively toward common goals. That’s been one of our secret sauce elements.
“So many different aspects of bioscience, from different sciences to the different groups that are commercializing to groups in the ecosystem that are training entrepreneurs and identifying workers — there are so many different elements that must come together in a unified fashion for an industry like bioscience to really thrive. So, the more people get to know each other and work with each other and pool their complementary strengths, the better the industry is going to be.”
Halvorsen points to our hospitals as one of the big partners of the biosciences in Arizona, explaining we have an extensive amount of research that takes place at our hospitals; clinical research involving patients and other innovations are coming out of our hospitals; hospitals supply a lot of the clinical arm of the equation as far as the patient base that might have access to new innovations coming about from Arizona bioscience discoveries. “The healthcare system is the endpoint on the spectrum for a lot of what’s being worked on by the university and companies to ultimately be put into use by the hospitals and health providers.
Economic Growth from the Biosciences
One example Mackay cites of growth in this sector in Pinnacle Transplant in North Phoenix, a startup idea 10 years ago that came out of the university. The company harvests body parts and manufactures them to fit exactly the prescription of the surgery that’s about to take place. “It was the idea of a couple of guys whose dad funded it in 2013. They now employ about 200 people, and they’ve spun out other companies. So, the growth of these companies is just astronomical.”
Some new companies marry medical experience with other assets in our community, such as one that addresses a problem the pandemic made unfortunately common as so many people needed to be intubated for breathing. When the intubation comes out, the sputum sprays all over the room; doctors and nurses are covered in sputum, and small aerosol particles coat the room. Two doctors at Dignity came up with the idea to build a patient box. They knew of a company in Phoenix that manufactured trade show booths for which business was understandably down during the pandemic, so a partnership was made between these two doctors and this group with a lot of plexiglass. They built prototypes for the doctors, and still build them today,” Mackay says, describing their solution as a box put over the patient so that, when the tubing is pulled out, the sputum stays in the box.
Says Mackay, “In life sciences, more than any other industry, I would argue that those unique partnerships, those unique startups, that come out of necessity are probably more prevalent than any other industry.”
“Amazing technologies are being developed locally,” Whitehead says, pointing to spinouts from healthcare organizations, the universities and the bioscience community. Support for entrepreneurs includes the Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation, located at GateWay Community College, which is internationally recognized. Humabiologics — a company discussed later in this article — may enable medical research to bypass animal trials by using human collagen and is one of the companies to come out of CEI.
The ecosystem also includes programs to help support companies as they grow, such as the Mayo Clinic and ASU MedTech Accelerator, which, according to its website, “provides medical device and healthcare IT early-stage companies with personalized business development plans to collaborate with Mayo Clinic and ASU and accelerate go to market and investment opportunities.”
In February, the Flinn Foundation announced participants for its 2022 Bioscience Entrepreneurship Program. A regenerative treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, a respiratory-assist device to improve COPD patient care, a blood-based test for colorectal cancer, and a treatment to solve bad dog breath are some of the transformative advances of the seven Arizona-based, early-stage companies competitively selected for the foundation’s program. Each will receive $30,000 in funding support through a nonprofit partner, a personalized learning plan, and connections with the state’s bioscience leaders in business, research and policy.
Much of the city’s economic development is focused on advanced manufacturing, biosciences and healthcare because, Mackay notes, those are the high-wage, knowledge-intensive jobs that have a really strong economic multiplier. It’s not just the one job they create, but it’s the multitude of other jobs that are created to support that one job. “Particularly in biosciences and healthcare, when you look at biomanufacturing and biopharma, infomatics — those companies need so much support,” Mackay says. “They need suppliers, assemblers, manufacturers, software design, technology support — whether it’s on a septic training techniques or sterilization techniques.” Using biomanufacturing as an example, Mackay says every biomanufacturing job the city attracts supports three to four additional jobs. “The economic impact is in the billions and billions of dollars.”
And in terms of spinoffs, TGen may hold the “patient zero” position for the exponential growth of organizations in this sector. It has, alone, spun off 26 new companies, some of which have spun off others of their own.
A regular part of Mackay’s research and development expansion and retention visits is asking the companies where they got their start. And what these startup companies, these thought-leading companies that are growing here in our market, tell her, she relates, is, “I was with U of A’; ‘I was with ASU’; ‘Oh, I was with TGen’; ‘Oh, my company’s technology came out of TGen’; ‘Oh, my company’s technology came out of’ … name another company.
“And that is so indicative of the strategy we started with, which was we were not only going to attract primes but we were going to grow our own.”
Which raises the issue of venture capital. Halvorsen acknowledges there is an abundance of venture capital on the coasts because that’s where the venture capital firms are; in between, less so. “It was a challenge for Arizona [companies] to grow their firms. It’s been a challenge for the Roadmap since its launch,” he says. But venture capital for bioscience firms in 2019 was $198 million — a record for the state — per the Roadmap report of 2020. The next biennial report is due out this month, and Halvorsen says he’s looking forward to seeing where that comes out in the new data.
Interconnected Web of Economic Impact
Stories of individual institutions inevitably demonstrate the interconnected network that pushes the boundaries of trying to define biosciences as an economic sector. Educational programs connect to research connect to commercialized application connect to healthcare practices, each one supporting and benefitting from the others.
The University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix
“It’s exciting to be part of the Phoenix Biomed Campus. It’s a bold experiment, trying to bring together the three universities as well as the research institution TGen with the idea of building a premier scientific research and development — and perhaps a company creation enterprise,” says Guy Reed, M.D., M.S., dean of The University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix, suggesting the potential to supply the positions and life health professionals that are needed to take care of the people in Arizona and to generate discoveries and perhaps develop them into new therapeutics and drugs and algorithms and new devices to improve health for everyone.
Regarding the scope of research, Dr. Reed says, “We live in a rich scientific and medical environment that’s enabled by collaboration between institutions. There’s the PBC itself, which has the three universities and research institutions. And partnerships with clinical entities such as out care systems — Banner, one of largest in country; Phoenix Children’s Hospital, which is one of largest children’s hospitals in the country; and Veteran’s Administration Medical Center, which is one of the fastest growing VAs in the country due to population expansion. And,” he adds, “related to the Western character and maybe this point in time, but collaboration seems easier here than some other places in country I’ve worked — the idea that people benefit when we all collaborate. That has driven a lot of success.”
Asking rhetorically, “What’s the fundamental knowledge base for medicine, and how does it obtain, develop, promote and expand that knowledge base?” he offers, “Science is the methodology we use to move medicine forward, so our training for students is science based.” UA College of Medicine is one of few medical schools in the country that requires each student to do the equivalent of a thesis — called a “scholarly project” — in which they do original research with a mentor, a preceptor, and then write that up. “Half of those get published or presented at national meetings,” Dr. Reed says, explaining, “Students need to understand the existing knowledge in medicine but also experience and learn how to generate new knowledge and evaluate new knowledge, because throughout their lives they will be exposed to new data, new innovations, new discoveries, and they’ll need to be able to evaluate those things critically before they think about their application to patients’ benefit.”
One of the medical school’s strategic initiatives is to further develop and support and build an entrepreneurial culture on its campus. “The entrepreneurial part is not just related to the business aspect but it’s really to help our faculty and students and our staff think about how we can address unmet medical needs through our science, our discoveries, and help develop those things — launch them into tangible products that could be used for patient benefit,” Dr. Reed says.
Thus, there’s continuum of discovery, analysis of need, innovation, development of a product, and then into a company that is designed to be the far end of the research and development cascade. “We’re trying to build that culture on this [PBC] campus so that our Arizona community and even the community beyond Arizona could have the benefit of the innovations and knowledge that exists in a place like that,” Dr. Reed says, citing initiatives that exist in that area: “In our own research building, there’s space for limited startup companies to build; once they scale to a certain level, they would move out into a partner institution — the ASU Wexford Building — where they could scale even further.” Many are developing companies that are raising venture capital or seeking strategic partners.
Notes Dr. Reed, “That continuum of an ecosystem obviously has health benefits, but it also has economic benefits for our community because it creates a place that people with talent in discovery and development want to come and live and work.”
Strategic Plans & Innovative Progress
The medical school’s strategic plan is focused in three areas: cardiovascular disease, neuroscience and children’s health. Its cardiovascular research center seeks to identify causes of heart failure and discover ways to treat or prevent them. In the translational neurosciences department, work is being done on trying to understand challenges in the realm of degenerative disease and also mental health disorders. “One of our faculty members was part of a consortium that just identified a huge number of genes that are linked to acute psychotic illness like schizophrenia,” Dr. Reed shares. “It’s developing the first real evidence of a biological cause for these mental disorders and enables a new way to be precise in our treatment of these patients.” And through the school’s partnership with Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Dr. Reed reports, it is developing a children’s institution to address medical needs in that group of patients.
Noting that the country is experiencing a physician shortage everywhere, Dr. Reed says this is more severe in Arizona than most other areas. “The reason is, until recently we didn’t have the medical schools or had small medical schools. And then after medical school, residencies where newly minted physicians do additional training were limited in Arizona — particularly in the Phoenix area.”
Addressing the problem on both fronts, UA College of Medicine expanded the number of physicians it trains — by 50%, even during COVID. Crediting that to the faculty and staff for what he says is “really an extraordinary achievement,” Dr. Reed says the school has also worked and developed strategic plans to expand the number of residency positions, in partnership primarily with Banner Health here in the Phoenix area, to potentially add as many as 100 to 300 in the Phoenix area.
New opportunities through both Medicare and the state may help with funding to support residency training. “We’ve been working with the state to have these become successful,” says Dr. Reed. “We did this a couple of years ago in the area of drug addiction, so now we have training programs in many areas.” These include some that address severe unmet needs, such as a new program in geriatric psychiatry and expanded programs in primary care. A program developed for students in primary care forgives part of the loan if they stay in the state. “This helps us recruit and support students who are committed to working in Arizona at the primary-care level.”
UA College of Medicine is also working with rural communities to set up training in those communities, where students can do “clerkships” – working with other physicians in patient care in a progressively more responsible fashion. Explains Dr. Reed, “Instead of going from one hospital area specialty to another hospital area specialty, they work with a couple of physicians who are in different specialties and follow patients through their episodes of care. That proceeds over the course of a few months.” Called a longitudinal integrated curriculum, it deepens the connection between physicians-in-training and the patients in communities that they’re enrolled in, with the aim of attracting some of those students to stay on and work in those communities that have such great need.
Another area Dr. Reed says has been important for the school is expanding the diversity of the physicians it trains and have that correspond more closely to the population distribution in Arizona. “It’s been shown that having a diverse team improves the delivery of care and enhances the connection between the physician and other members of the team with the patient,” he says. In furtherance of that goal, Dr. Reed reports the school recently received a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation to train nine Native American students. The students will enter the school’s Pathway Scholars Program, which, Dr. Reed explains, gives them intensive preparation to join medical school.
A partnership opportunity instigated Creighton University’s decision to build a second campus in Phoenix. According to Randy Richardson, M.D., dean of Creighton University, the merger of Banner Health and The University of Arizona left St. Joseph’s without an academic partner; UA had been its academic partner for decades. “St. Joe’s wanted to continue to be an academic medical center, so they were looking for an academic partner,” Dr. Richardson says.
But, he adds, “The more compelling reason it was a good fit was the need for health professions across the board in the Phoenix area, and in Arizona.” Omaha, Nebraska, home of Creighton University, has one of the higher students-per-capita rates of all states — it’s in the top seven. Arizona is in the bottom seven (“or somewhere around that,” Dr. Richardson modifies). “So, it was a perfect match.” And the situation of physicians is the same, he observes. “The physician need here was much higher than what we were putting out. For primary care, for specialty care, all aspects of care — physician care, physician assistant care — there’s a huge need.” Additionally, he notes, the population is increasing in Phoenix. “First of all, we’re already behind; and second, we’re getting further behind because of the increasing population. For me, that was the more compelling reason that this made a lot of sense — that we need more learners to get a pipeline for physicians here in Arizona.”
The City of Phoenix was a partner with Creighton, Mayor Gallego shares. “We created a community facilities district to help them with some of the challenges around development and parking. Recently, the city issued hotel development bonds to support the development of a hotel on that campus as well.” Additionally, Gallego notes, the light rail goes right through there, which is a great resource on the transportation side. “None of this happens accidentally,” she says.
Dr. Richardson points to Creighton’s partnership with ASU as one of its most effective actions. “Early on, we started working with their faculty without an agreement in place. Our students were just working with some of their faculty, especially in the biomedical engineering department, and we signed a formal research and faculty sharing agreement with ASU.” Although COVID put a damper on that, a lot is moving forward now in a powerful way, according to Dr. Richardson. “One of the things that was really exciting was to see our students having ideas about products they would like to develop and working with the biomedical engineering department at ASU to develop those products.” Before COVID hit, 13 products had been developed by Creighton students with the help of the biomedical engineering department at ASU.
Benefit of the partnership goes in both directions, Dr. Richardson believes, explaining Creighton is using ASU’s faculty to teach a lot of the basic sciences. “We don’t have an undergraduate campus here and ASU is one of the biggest universities in the country, so we’re leveraging some of that to help our students with basic sciences. We also started a wonderful medical humanities program. We’re using some of the faculty from the Humanities department at ASU to come and sponsor courses here for our students, in art and literature and all of the humanities.”
Dr. Richardson explains that part of Creighton’s curriculum is the art of becoming a physician. “The compassion that we hope our students have, the ethics we hope they have — all this fits very well into the humanities. So, we have the medical humanities program.
“We feel, as a Jesuit university, that has to be a critical piece of developing healers,” Dr. Richardson continues. “They aren’t just good at the numbers and the physiology and the anatomy and the clinical aptitude, but they’re also caring individuals who care about people deeply and want to serve humanity. I just feel that it’s a critical piece that we can’t neglect.”
And Creighton actually puts that into practice with an extraordinary outreach into the community. Sharing, “St. Vincent de Paul is the other one where we really joined together, with multiple health systems, the university and St. Vincent de Paul all working together to provide expanded care for the uninsured in our community,” Dr. Richardson explains that they are able to funnel the people who are admitted through the emergency department at the hospital — where those with no health insurance often end up — over to St. Vincent de Paul for their follow-up care. And it’s been incredibly successful. “So that helps everyone. That helps the uninsured population; it helps their overall health. It helps the health system not have to deal with that and have these huge costs of people who can’t pay. And it helps our students and faculty to serve our community.
“Piper saw that idea and said, ‘We want to sponsor that’ — and gave us $10 million because they thought it was a great idea. And guess what? It was a really great idea. I get too excited about that, probably. But it really has worked out even better than we could have ever imagined.”
Creighton in the Community
Going into more detail about the medical humanities program, Dr. Richardson says some required components involve discussions about ethical issues, about compassion and about healthcare in general and where it’s headed. There are also selective components, allowing students to choose what resonates with them about caring for patients, for instance gaining a deeper understanding of patients through understanding literature about patient care and compassion in patient care. “They have a humanities course that one of the professors at ASU will come over and teach for us. Or they think that looking at art around physician care for patients resonates with them and helps them to be a more compassionate healer, so they have an art class about caring for patients. It’s a lot of reflection, a lot of thinking about how we care for patients and what’s most important.
“We believe in what’s called cura personalis, which is a Latin term that means caring for the whole person — mind, body and spirit. So, it’s that element of the art of becoming a physician — not just the basic sciences, not just the clinical sciences; but more of the compassion, ethics and humanities involved in becoming a healer.”
Fruit of that holistic attitude is the program with St. Vincent de Paul to provide expanded care for the uninsured in our community. Dignity Health, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Valleywise Health have partnered with Creighton University to funnel patients to St Vincent de Paul, addressing a problem common to all metropolitans in the country. “We have a large population of uninsured people, and they often get their primary care at the emergency department — which is the worst possible care for the person at the highest possible price,” says Dr. Richardson. “Why do I say the worst care? Well, they’ve waited so long with whatever health challenge they have, now they’re in crisis, and so they’re showing up at the emergency department to take care of their diabetes, their hypertension, or whatever chronic problem they had, where if they’d had good care all along, they wouldn’t be in that crisis mode.” Funneling in-patient people who are admitted to the hospital over to St. Vincent de Paul for their follow-up care has been “incredibly successful,” he says. “The average readmittance rate for these people is between 11 and 13 percent. And since we’ve been doing this, we’re seeing 3% of these patients being readmitted to the hospital. Which is off-the-charts really good.”
Pointing out that the St. Vincent de Paul program is a win-win-win for everyone – better health for the uninsured, reducing the financial burden on the health system over cost of care to people who can’t pay, and helping the school’s students and faculty serve our community, Dr. Richardson says, “We’ve decided that’s the ideal place to teach our students how to take care of people as well. And that’s been a huge success as well. We’re sending our M1 students over there. We call it an integrated curriculum, where they’re learning the basic sciences and, as they’re learning the basic sciences, we want them to have a clinical experience so they can understand how the basic sciences fit into actually caring for patients.” Students learn about the heart anatomically, they learn how the heart works, they learn about the pathology people develop with heart problems, and then they actually see patients with heart problems. And St. Vincent de Paul is “the best possible place to do that,” Dr. Richardson says, “because we can control the patients that come there.” The university can plan a cardiology clinic, for instance, and take only cardiology patients there, and the students can go and learn. Another significant advantage is there’s no pressure for the attending physician to turn out patients every 15 minutes, because it’s free. “They can take as long as they need to with the patient, which is ideal for teaching. It’s just been a huge success on all fronts at St. Vincent de Paul.”
Mayo Clinic in Arizona
Big news from Mayo Clinic is its plans for the parcel of land newly purchased adjacent to its existing facility on Mayo Blvd. in north Phoenix. Says Richard Gray, M.D., CEO of Mayo Clinic in Arizona, “We are excited about this 228 acres of land. Part of that land is for Mayo Clinic’s generational growth. But also, in furtherance of the 2030 Strategy, we have long wanted to build something like what we’re now calling Discovery Oasis that can produce more solutions more efficiently and be more broadly available to patients by means of collaboration.” Dr. Gray explains Mayo’s 2030 Strategy is for Mayo Clinic to lead in the transformation of healthcare through a robust strategy of “cure, connect and transform” that will also involve a lot of digital technology.
“So, what we envision for Discovery Oasis is creating an ecosystem of bioscience and biotechnology collaboration that spans from discovery science (a research-type of undertaking) to translation of that science (meaning, ‘Okay, we’ve discovered a new drug or a new molecule and we want to make sure it really is effective in doing what we want it to do. How do we make that drug in quantities small enough to be feasible but large enough to do clinical trials in patients at Mayo Clinic and elsewhere?’; the translation of that drug into something that’s meaningful for patients) to commercialization (how do we then make it broadly available?).”
Dr. Gray notes there are areas around the country where there is a research park or healthcare innovation zones. “We would like this to be an area that spans all that — from research to innovation to the commercialization and taking it to the patient. We believe we’re in a prime position to be able to do that because those type of healthcare and technology and bioscience organizations are attracted to this area, they’re attracted to working with Mayo Clinic, they’re attracted to working with ASU, and you put all of those together with a space within which they can work with each other and collaborate with each other, and we really believe that within a few short years all eyes will be on this area and what is happening in healthcare innovation and in transformation of the system of helping patients in the U.S. and around the world.
“We want this to be something that’s great for the future of healthcare, that’s great for Mayo Clinic, but great for our area, too. And the transformation of healthcare. And the shoring up of U.S. resources — things that, through the pandemic, we found we need and rely on and don’t always have all of the infrastructure we need to accomplish within the boundaries of our nation.”
Collaboration and transformation of healthcare are the central concepts that underly all the plans Dr. Gray describes. “We believe that healthcare has to transform to more of a platform model around patients, where patients are able to take the best pieces of the healthcare system to meet their needs and put it together in a personalized way.”
Furthering that goal, Mayo plans Discovery Oasis to be about the transformation of healthcare that’s needed, based on the core strategy mentioned earlier: cure, connect and transform. Around “cure,” Mayo’s emphasis is in patients that have serious, complex and rare diseases, and producing more cures and more hope for those patients. The connect piece is the digital transformation that’s needed in healthcare to make things better for patients and seamless for patients, but also to unburden doctors and nurses by automating some of the peripheral things so they can focus on the person in front of them — “So,” Dr. Gray notes, “there will be an emphasis on factors that can accelerate digital transformation.” And the transform piece is where technology plays a part: to simplify healthcare and create those digital platforms that people can build around them.
There is no timeline as yet for this development, as Dr. Gray explains Mayo has only just purchased the land and is still in the process of doing the planning for basic infrastructure and envisioning what might be the phases of how Discovery Oasis is rolled out. He credits the City of Phoenix for its support. “The City of Phoenix has been good working with us. They’ve helped us get a handle on what infrastructure will need to be put into place to start developing Discovery Oasis.”
“The City of Phoenix has been an important partner in Mayo’s expansion,” says Mayor Gallego. “Our taxpayers have supported them at more than $20 million and will be, hopefully, approving a deal today to allow them to keep a lot of their construction sales tax as an investment.” [Editor’s note: The Mayo Clinic development agreement was approved unanimously during the Phoenix City Council meeting a few hours after this interview.] “We’re also working with them on infrastructure because a campus of that magnitude will have a lot of infrastructure needs.”
Explaining that Phoenix has been very intentional in making that investment and trying to get world-class care in the city for its residents, Mayor Gallego also notes Mayo Clinic has benefited its surrounding community, attracting restaurants and other non-healthcare businesses.
The Mayo project will be more than three million square feet, with an expansion of clinical research, education and patient care. Gallego anticipates it will garner interest from companies that want to be near the Mayo Clinic’s Discovery Oasis. “So., we hope it’s helping build out an ecosystem,” she says.
Evidence points to that being a realistic expectation. Dr. Gray says that since the land auction, there’s been no shortage of interest — in spite of the fact that Mayo has done nothing to solicit interest. “ In fact,” he says, “prior to the auction, we would have organizations approach us about collaborations at Mayo Clinic and we would tell them about the land being brought forward for auction, and they would tell us, ‘We’ll wait.’”
Says Dr. Gray, “The Phoenix area has been wonderful in terms of bioscience and biotechnology. What we have seen at Mayo Clinic is incredible opportunity for us in Arizona, in no small part because of the burgeoning bioscience and biotechnology sector here in the Phoenix metropolitan area.”
Observing that long-standing organizations such as the universities, Mayo Clinic and other healthcare organizations have helped make Arizona and the Phoenix metropolitan area attractive for people to locate, Dr. Gray says this has led to more innovation and opportunity for synergy within the community.
“We have long been collaborative at Mayo Clinic,” he says. “In fact, we have a research building on our Scottsdale campus that is entitled the Mayo Clinic Collaborative Research Building.” The building was intended not just for Mayo Clinic researchers but also for collaborators, who have included ASU, Translational Genomics and TD2. “So, we have certainly seen through our collaborations with organizations like those and others how we can move forward more quickly in producing new cures and new treatment options for patients with complex conditions, which is a key to our mission.”
Mayo has spun out businesses and built businesses based on discoveries and translations; launching spinoff businesses to commercialize discoveries that have been made at Mayo Clinic has been a long-standing part of what the organization has done. While that is not core to Mayo’s mission, Dr. Gray explains it’s important because there needs to be an outlet for the solutions being built — to actually reach people beyond just one organization or one place. Cologuard, for example, was built and developed at Mayo Clinic.
Collaboration and partnerships is a key part of Mayo’s 2030 Strategy, which, as explained above, includes transforming healthcare through digital platforms that deliver healthcare. “As we build Mayo Clinic Platform for that purpose,” says Dr. Gray, “we’ve been collaborating with things like data security, data identification, but also spinning out new businesses.” Two new businesses spun out just a year ago are Anumana and Lucem Health, which are designed to take and collate data sources like people’s wearable devices and pull those together and then turn those into actionable items for a person’s physician or others who are taking care of them.
“The attraction of Arizona and the Phoenix metropolitan area is that we do have a lot of talent that’s produced at our universities and other training programs here, and we find that this is a very desirable place to live,” Dr. Gray says. “So, we can both build talent within and attract talent from elsewhere. Once they’re here, they like being here. So we can retain that talent both through the opportunities we provide at Mayo Clinic and the culture that we have, but also the area in which we are.”
Ivy Brain Tumor Center
The Ivy Brain Tumor Center is, effectively, a not-for-profit drug development program, says Nader Sanai, M.D., director of Ivy Brain Tumor Center. “We focus on new and developed agents from partners and biopharma and biotech, and deploy them for patients with brain cancer.” This is done through specialized clinical trials as well as laboratory research, all done at the IBTC, which is at the Barrow Neurological Institute. “So, at any given point, our drug development portfolio has anywhere between 15 and 20 novel molecules and strategies, from a variety of companies nationally and internationally.”
What this means for the biotech community in Phoenix, Dr. Sanai explains, is there is an extremely robust avenue for early-stage clinical development in brain cancer. He believes it also means IBTC, by virtue of its being a unique resource here, is helping the region become more visible to the national and international drug development, pharmaceutical, biopharma, biotech community.
“We believe that all boats are floating with our growth here,” says Dr. Sanai. “We are now in our fourth year of our organization and have approximately 60 full-time employees. We treat more brain cancer patients than any center in the United States. And we have more early-stage clinical trials than any center in the United States. So, we think this is a very symbiotic relationship.”
IBTC was founded in late 2018 after an initial $50 million investment from the Ben and Catherine Ivy Foundation, which is the largest nonprofit funder of brain cancer research in the world, as well as an investment from the Barrow Neurological Foundation, which is a nonprofit fundraising arm of the Barrow Neurological Institute. It has grown substantially since then, and Dr. Sanai reports it has more than $130 million committed. Currently under construction at 3rd Avenue and Thomas Road is what will be the largest single-structure dedicated to brain cancer research in the United States — a 75,000-square-foot, five-story facility that will be IBTC’s headquarters and will be primarily laboratory space and clinical investigation space for IBTC’s drug development efforts but also with multidisciplinary space for brain cancer patient care. It is due to open mid-2023.
“Our mission is to facilitate small and large companies that have new agents in development to get to market for brain cancer patients. So, we partner with privately held companies that are emerging from stealth mode all the way up through multinational biopharma that are headquartered abroad,” Dr. Sanai says.
Observing that there’s increasing amount of various avenues of investment in the biotech and drug development industry but that, traditionally, the bulk of those have gone to coastal programs, Dr. Sanai says, “I think what we’re seeing now is that good science can be done in any region, as long as the circumstances are fertile. And with Phoenix’s incredible intellectual capital, relative lack of bureaucracy in the state as well as the influx of younger people, who oftentimes are the foundation for these efforts, I fully expect our region to grow within this sector.”
New Businesses, New Advances
“We’re trying to stimulate the immune system to kill cancer,” says Steve Potts, Ph.D., MBA, the company’s co-founder, CEO and director. OncoMyx is specifically going after colorectal, gastrointestinal and some blood cancers, working with the myxoma virus, which, Potts points out, is unique because it works in solid tumors as well as blood cancers. “It’s very specific for tumor cells. The trick is to find something that only affects the cancer cells, and that’s a hard problem.”
Potts describes himself as a serial entrepreneur. With a doctorate from University of California at Davis and a wife from Arizona, Potts says he moved back here several years ago, started a company in Flagstaff that was acquired, then worked for a San Diego company for four years that was developing a drug for cancer, which Genentech acquired. “While the company was being acquired, I got to know a researcher at ASU — Grant McFadden — a global leader in this area of using a virus cell to kill cancer cells. He’d moved here five years ago from University of Florida and was ready to get into biotech. We hit it off, and fundraised in steps,” he relates.
The $25 million Series A raise was to get OncoMyx out of the University and get tested in animal models. The $50 million Series B, which closed last fall, is, basically, to get it ready for clinical trials, which are slated for next year. “It’s an expensive, long process from idea to actual drug,” Potts says, noting it takes on average three to five years from idea to clinical trials, and then the clinical trials take another three to five years.
Having come out of ASU and tested in collaboration with Mayo Clinic and SkySong — the licensing arm for ASU — OncoMyx, in Potts’s words, is “home grown here.”
And he describes “here” as a very collaborative town with good synergy. “There are really good clinical groups here: Mayo Clinic, Banner Health, a medical school here in town now, the Ivy Brain Institute. ASU is very good about getting companies spun out, helping with the commercialization of technology. There’s research collaboration between the universities and clinics in town.” For OncoMyx, “We do a lot of our research testing with TD2 [Translational Drug Development] in Scottsdale. They do really good research — they’re under the radar, but a really great group. It’s been great to have them in town.”
Crediting the state with a strong history in life sciences, Potts likens the field to a tripod. One leg is the devices industry, involving, for instance, cardiac devices such as pacemakers and stints. Another is the diagnostics industry; observing, “A lot of the really key cancer human genome discoveries were made here,” Potts names TGen and Sonora Quest as among the big names here. “A number of us are trying to build that third leg of the stool — the biotech drug development aspect,” he says, noting that drug development is a huge industry, and what’s been done is just the tip of the iceberg. “The big drug development centers are San Francisco, Boston, New Jersey, to some extent Seattle, San Diego. Phoenix is working to come into that second tier. OncoMyx is representing that wave of trying to get more biotech drug development here in Arizona.”
Humabiologics is a spinoff of previously mentioned Pinnacle Transplant. CEO and founder Mohammad Albanna, Ph.D., saw an opportunity to, essentially, salvage donated biologic material that Pinnacle Transplant could not use. He started the company in 2018 and is already shipping around the world — to Japan, South Korea, China, Australia, all over Europe, all over Canada — “because there is no other product like our product in the market,” Albanna says. The product? Human collagen.
Albanna was recruited by Pinnacle Transplant from Wake Forest Innovation in North Carolina, the commercialization arm of Wake Forest Baptist medical center, to be in the research and development department to launch new products. “I was trained by the gentleman who pioneered the field of regenerative medicine,” he says, noting that after early successes, “everyone got into the field of regenerative medicine, where we combine materials and cells, where we can bioprint tissues and organs. Because of the work we did with him, we pioneered the field of bioprinting where we can bioprint human tissues and organs.”
Now, with any type of cells from the human body, we have systems to grow those cells in the lab. However, where it comes to the material, the only option that was available for research was using material obtained from animal tissue. The problem with that for developing human therapies, Albanna explains, is “we know for sure that with animal models, 90% of drugs we test on animals that are shown to be safe fail in Phase 1 clinical trials because the animal does not exactly replicate human physiology.
“But now, we can create models [with human collagen] in the lab to test the drugs so we can get realistic results and response. So, before we spend hundreds of millions of dollars and waste years, we know basically if it’s going to work or not.”
If researchers want to create a cancer model to test chemo drugs and see which drug performs better, which has least toxicity to the patient — because every lung cancer is the same and every breast cancer is the same, for instance, but every patient is different — how about taking a biopsy from the patient’s cancer cell, grow them in the lab, create that model, and then testing the drugs on that so it can be determined what the dose needs to be, what type of drug, and if it’s going to have side effects on the patient. “So, you can, literally, have personalized medicine,” Albanna says.
But to do that, researchers need to have the material. “Until we came as a company, there was no human biomaterial. It was all obtained from animal material; there was no access to human.” Albanna combined his expertise in the field with the tissue banking at Pinnacle. “They worked with donated tissue material. Sometimes you cannot use that tissue for transplant, so you end up discarding that tissue. So that’s where we come in. We take that tissue that is not going to be used for transplant, and we extract the main building blocks, like the collagen, and we provide it to researchers so they can use it to create human tissues and bone. The advantage of that is that you are actually using human material to create a human tissue.”
Albanna says he is proud of what his company contributes to the industry. On the one hand, it is a product that is needed in a $40 billion market where every researcher around the world is trying to recreate human tissue or organs and needs that material. “And we are trying to save money for companies that are developing therapies so they can get their therapies more quickly to the patient.” On the other hand is “the noble cause that we honor someone’s last wishes — they donated the human tissue and if it was not being used for transplant, we make sure the donor’s last wishes still are being honored.”
Crediting a supportive environment for startups, Albanna says, “A lot of people helped with starting the business. The city itself; the state in general; we are still in a business incubator where we can get subsidized rent; we have a lot of free services available to us, so that helps us to stay focused on the business and use our money to grow the business as opposed to building the infrastructure around us.”
And he’s helping to pay that forward. “I remember in my first year here, I went to ASU — I had the relationship with the department there — and we took around 10 students to provide them with a hands-on internship,” Albanna says. “It was very successful. By the end of that internship, we hired three people full-time from those students. Some of them had not even completed their degree yet.” And recently, he says, a chemical engineering student landed a job with Medtronic. “So, the idea that we, as a small company, try to provide internships for students actually opens a lot of doors for them where they can actually stay in the state rather than go to California. At least with our role here as a small company, we’re trying always to provide this hands-on experience for the students so, when they apply for a job, they have something meaningful on their resume where big companies will appreciate and give them the opportunity for a position.”
Speaking of the collaborative environment of the Phoenix Bioscience Core, Albanna says, “We see a lot of great stuff happening here and there, so it’s really exciting to see what’s happening right now. I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen in the next five years. It’s going to be completely different than today.”
“What’s happened during the years of the Roadmap is Arizona has grown into one of the fastest-growing bioscience states in the country,” says Flinn’s Halvorsen, noting that the growth rate of our bioscience jobs in recent years has been about double what the rest of the nation is experiencing.
Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap spawned the bringing together of the many disparate institutions across sectors, across companies, from government to academia to industry. “From what we hear, collaboration is not typical in most regions,” Halvorsen says, “but Arizona is a state that does collaboration well; Arizona has the ‘collaborative gene.’”
Arizona, in fact, has a reputation outside its borders as a state where the institutions work well together across sectors. Says Halvorsen, “Our people, our institutions, our customs [have the reputation] of working with one another for the collective good.
“That definitely provides a distinct advantage when you have an ecosystem that’s working efficiently together, and individuals are benefiting from the others in the same ecosystem.”