Small biotech firms begin to set roots
Bill Andrews, who tells his investors that he’s going to cure aging or die trying, wants to live out the rest of a very long lifespan in Reno.
John Kucharcyzk, who’s working to commercialize medical devices to remove blood clots associated with strokes, feels nearly constant pressure to move his company elsewhere.
Like Andrews and Kucharcyzk, other executives from the handful of companies that are seeking to establish a beachhead for the biotechnology and pharmaceuticals industry in northern Nevada are buffeted by competing pressures.
Economic development executives have their fingers crossed that the sector could grow into something more substantial.
While no one has a good handle on the number of biotech and pharmaceutical companies that have rooted in the region, the number appears to be about a dozen. Most are small.
Many of them landed in Reno because of executives liked the region’s lifestyle, not because northern Nevada offers anything special for biotech companies.
And the pressures between an attractive lifestyle and minimal support are a reality for most executives in the industry.
Kucharcyzk, for instance, brought NexGen Medical Systems with him when he moved to Reno from the Bay Area five years ago.
The company has two employees in Reno another two researchers work in Florida and contracts with 10 consultants on a part-time basis.
Employment in Reno could grow by six, Kucharcyzk says, assuming that the company can complete its next round of financing.
“Most investors I have spoken with over the past five years have encouraged me to move NexGen to San Francisco,” he says, noting that there’s little local infrastructure to support a research company and he’s found little interest in the state government in the development of a pharmaceuticals or medical devices industry.
The company recently won more than $80,000 in federal research grants through the support of Sen. Harry Reid.
Andrews, whose Sierra Sciences LLC got a major boost last month when Harvard researchers published support for the anti-aging strategy pursued by his Reno company, is willing to put up with all sorts of inconveniences to stay in northern Nevada.
Unable to recruit sufficient numbers of medical researchers, Sierra Sciences began hiring promising graduates of the University of Nevada, Reno, and training them itself.
When it’s time to tap the capital and scientific resources of the Bay Area, Andrews figures the hour flight over the Sierra is quicker than a drive through Bay Area traffic. Sometimes, he even can walk back to his Rock Boulevard office from the airport.
“I would never leave Reno,” says the one-time resident of the Bay Area who moved to northern Nevada nearly a dozen years ago. Sealing the deal: As a runner of ultramarathon events, Andrews dreamed of living and training in a place without poison oak.
Sierra Sciences has employed as many as 40 most of them scientists who have screened nearly 255,000 compounds in their search for an enzyme called “telomerase” that appears to turn off the aging process in humans.
The search has slowed a bit as the recession cut the flow of investment dollars to the company and it reduced its staff to 17.
Still, Sierra Sciences expects to bring a nutraceutical product to market by early 2011.
Marketable products are further in the future for Deuteria Pharmaceutials LLC and Protia LLC, a pair of Reno companies launched by Anthony Czarnik.
While Protia LLC exists mostly as a vehicle to hold patents and other intellectual property, Deuteria researches the use of deuterium a non-radioactive isotope of hydrogen in drug compounds to improve their efficacy.
The company, which has been financed for the past couple of years by individual investors who put up $250,000 each, landed in Reno because Czarnik and his wife wanted to be close but not too close to a daughter who enrolled in Stockton’s University of the Pacific.
So far, Deuteria Pharmaceuticals is so small that it hasn’t encountered challenges from its Reno location.
“This is an adventure, and I enjoy being involved with it,” says Czarnik.
Thomas Neville, the founder and chief scientist of Soar BioDynamics in Incline Village, describe his small company’s work as a “personal mission.”
Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002, Neville founded Soar BioDynamics in 2005 to develop better and more cost-effective strategies to screen men for prostate cancer.
The company won nearly $245,000 in federal research dollars in 2009, and it’s applying for a grant from the National Institutes of Health to undertake a large-scale test with major research partners, Neville says.
The company’s staff of three includes two in Incline Village.
While most of the biotech and pharmaceutical companies in the region are small, the sector is an important target for the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada.
Tom Matter, business development manager for EDAWN, notes that wages in the biotech sector are 68 percent higher than the national average they run $71,000 a year, says the Department of Labor and the industry is growing at a 13 percent annual clip.
The University of Nevada, Reno Medical School, which just moved into its new Center for Molecular Medicine on its Reno campus, is likely to be an important factor in attracting biotech companies to the region, Matter says.
Also important will be the research facilities of Desert Research Institute as well as the region’s quality of life, he says.
“It definitely makes us a good fit,” Matter says.
But he cautions that every economic developer across the nation is looking at the biotechnology and pharmaceuticals sector, and northern Nevada faces stiff competition.
That was all the more reason for EDAWN executives to celebrate last year when Synvasive Technology Inc., a maker of systems for orthopaedic surgery, opened a facility in South Meadows that employs 15.
The economic development agency estimated the first-year economic impact of Synvasive’s decision at nearly $5 million for the region.
Synvasive joins Charles River Laboratories, the largest biotechnology company in the region.
Charles River, which provides pre-clinical testing for pharmaceutical companies and employs about 450 in south Reno, has operated in northern Nevada since 1992.
“We have been impressed with the local workforce and the region’s efforts to encourage economic growth and development,'” says Emily Hyman, a spokeswoman for the company.
While the company sometimes has struggled to recruit specialized scientific workers locally, she says Charles River has built closer relationships with universities in the region to identify promising scientists.
And Charles River has found that the amenities of the Reno-Tahoe region provide a good tool when the company recruits staff from the large West Coast biopharma hubs such as San Francisco.
“We have the advantage of attracting people to an to an area that has a lot to offer,” Hyman says.
“The thing that I like most about entrepreneurship is I can work toward something that I’m passionate about and be at the forefront of the change that I want to see happen,” said Priyanka Senthil, a senior at Davidson Academy in Reno and co-founder of startup company AUesome.