Sunday, December 29, 2002

Agency puts focus on Ohio biotech

Omeris hopes to promote businesses to investors

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Efforts to promote biotech business growth in Ohio will accelerate in 2003 - starting with a Midwest biotech trade show to be held in April.

So says Anthony Dennis, the new boss of Omeris, the renamed and reorganized agency previously known as the Edison BioTechnology Center.

"We recognized that Ohio no longer needs a lot of the basics of bioscience development, such as promoting tech transfer and setting up incubators. Those things are in place," Mr. Dennis said. "What Ohio really needs is to accelerate what it's doing."

To begin, Omeris has joined a consortium of eight Midwest states that plans to gather in Chicago April 3 and 4 to showcase the region's most promising start-up companies to venture capital investors.

Each state - Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin - will get five "presentation slots." In Ohio, companies must submit proposals to Omeris to get a place in the show.

The show is an attempt to improve what has been a consistently tough problem for Midwest biotech start-ups - attracting early-stage investment.

"Within 300 miles of Cincinnati, there are institutions receiving about as much (National Institutes of Health) funding as California, but there's just 1 percent as much venture capital investment here as there is in California," Mr. Dennis said.

In Massachusetts, California or New Jersey, investors can travel to one or two cities and meet with a dozen or more companies. In the Midwest, investors might have to travel to 10 cities to make as many contacts.

"By banding together, we can overcome that disadvantage," Mr. Dennis said.

The show itself is an indication that the still-small biotech sector in Ohio has grown beyond its fledgling stage, Mr. Dennis said.

When the Cleveland-based Edison biotech center started in 1986, many of the companies that will compete for a slot simply didn't exist.

So now, instead of spending so much time convincing state officials, university administrators, big corporations and even scientists themselves that biotech business is a concept worth exploring, the mission of Omeris has shifted toward making it happen.

"We applaud and share the Omeris mission," said Mark Collar, president of P&G Pharmaceuticals and a member of the Omeris board of directors.

The new Omeris name has no particular meaning, but was intended to help build a fresh image for Ohio's biotech development efforts, Mr. Dennis said. The name was crafted with help from brand marketing managers from two of Ohio's larger pharmaceutical companies.

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft has discussed biotech as a centerpiece of his "Third Frontier" program for improving economic development.

That high-level support is helpful, but Mr. Dennis said Omeris does not expect much more money flowing from the budget-pinched state to accelerate biotech development.

"We're not that worried about a lack of funding because many other states are having just as much trouble with their budgets as Ohio," Mr. Dennis said.

Instead, Omeris has stepped up efforts to attract more federal and private investment in Midwest start-ups, including efforts to increase overseas business connections.

For example, two biotech companies that started in Israel have moved in recent months to Cleveland, and two more are talking about it, Mr. Dennis said.

Meanwhile in Columbus, Omeris is working with Ohio State University to promote closer business ties to Asia, because the campus has one of the highest percentages of Asian students in the country, he said.


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