Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
BennuBio, the latest Albuquerque startup to win state-backed venture funding, is riding a surge in local efforts to turn New Mexico into a national hub for biotechnology.
The company recently won a $1.5 million investment in August from Tramway Venture Partners and Cottonwood Technology to market a new University of New Mexico breakthrough that could accelerate tissue processing rates for research clinics and pharmaceutical companies by up to 100-fold.
Both investment firms are deploying money from the state’s newly developed Catalyst Fund, which the government launched last year to channel more money to early-stage startups marketing promising, homegrown technologies.
The latest investment in BennuBio is part of a statewide push to build public-private strategies that can promote economic development through entrepreneurial innovation that draws on the state’s high-tech prowess in key areas. That includes biotechnology, optics and photonics, information technology, and aviation and aerospace.
In biotechnology, such efforts are burgeoning into a foundational base, or industry cluster, that could turn New Mexico’s innovative life science arena into a center of excellence with stable, high-paying jobs, said Dr. Richard Larson, executive vice chancellor at UNM’s Health Sciences Center.
“We have all the fundamental elements in place now to grow a robust bioscience industry in New Mexico,” Larson said. “It’s one of the few industry clusters where we’ve managed to bring all the pieces together to move forward.”
Those pieces include research at the state’s universities and national labs, aggressive efforts to commercialize new products and services, a fledgling but growing investment community, and business accelerators and incubators to help entrepreneurs launch successful companies. It also includes trade organizations to promote industry through networking and education, plus collaboration among public and private entities to coordinate industry-building strategies.
All those elements have come together through a GrowBio initiative that bioscience business and research leaders launched in 2016, leading to legislative approval last year for a new public-private Bioscience Authority to spearhead statewide efforts.
“The Bioscience Authority can facilitate efforts to get all the industry pieces working together to leverage public and private funding and cooperation,” said Larson, now chairman and president of the authority.
Such cluster-building efforts aren’t new, but they’re gaining momentum as business leaders, economic development organizations and public officials work to strengthen New Mexico’s startup economy. Technology transfer from the state’s labs and research universities is a critical part of those efforts, said Economic Development Secretary Matt Geisel.
“We’ve all heard that the opportunity, or secret sauce for building the innovation economy is by tapping into all the research and development at New Mexico’s labs and universities to commercialize new technologies,” Geisel said. “That’s now happening in New Mexico with a real emergence and convergence of technology, human capital and financial resources.”
The Innovate ABQ high-tech development district in Downtown Albuquerque is a key catalyst for those efforts. It’s helped merge researchers and professionals from the labs and universities with investors and businesspeople.
In addition, the state’s Catalyst Fund, plus government assistance through the Local Economic Development Act and New Mexico’s Job Training Incentive Program, are helping companies launch and expand, Geisel said.
That economic infrastructure is directly boosting the GrowBio initiative, and it could spur more development in the state’s other high-tech industry sectors.
Optics and Photonics
In optics and photonics, or light-based technologies, many breakthrough innovations have emerged from the state’s universities and national labs, leading to new detectors, sensors, lasers, lenses and mirrors that are used in a broad array of applications. That includes medical diagnostics and drug discovery, telecommunications, solar generation and more.
That, in turn, has generated a local manufacturing base with scores of companies supplying needed products and services, and startups working to market new technologies. A 2015 New Mexico Optics Association report showed about 100 optics and photonics firms now operate in New Mexico, accounting for 8 percent of all state manufacturing revenue, said Association Chair Jim McNally.
“We have a huge base of optics technology expertise,” McNally said. “Many companies are growing here without any special public incentives or impetus.”
New companies continue to emerge, such as OptiPulse Inc., which is marketing innovative laser chips for telecommunications that could speed wireless internet networks by up to 100-fold. And established firms are aggressively expanding. SolAero Technologies Corp., for example, which builds solar cells and panels for satellites and spacecraft, recently completed a $10 million upgrade to its Albuquerque facility.
The Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base provides impetus for industry growth, given its focus on directed energy and space technology. It’s now working to build new industry partnerships to accelerate technology development, offering more opportunities for New Mexico businesses, McNally said.
Aviation and aerospace
The aviation and aerospace industry could also benefit from cluster-building initiatives. It’s received less attention in recent years, in part because it’s taken longer than other sectors to bounce back from the 2008 recession, said Aspen Avionics President and CEO John Uczekaj.
“The industry as a whole is coming out of a prolonged downturn,” Uczekaj said. “But we’re seeing the beginnings of a turnaround now that could drive more growth in New Mexico.”
A 2012 New Mexico Aviation Aerospace Association report showed nearly 300 companies operate across the state with a $3.1 billion impact on the economy. But with an aging workforce, finding new talent is hard, said Association President Bill Shuert.
“We need a more progressive path for students to get into the workforce to sustain companies and bring new ones to the state,” Shuert said. “That’s our biggest problem.”
The association is focused on motivating youth to study science, technology, engineering and math for careers in aviation. About 20,000 middle and high school students have attended it’s annual STEM Expo since 2012.
But the industry needs more support.
“We hold an annual aviation day at the Round House to talk with legislators on what they can do or are doing to support aviation,” Shuert said. “But most don’t know what’s going on in aviation or understand its real impact on the state economy.”
Still, companies continue to grow. CSI Aviation Inc., for example, is agressively expanding its medical flight business. It’s renovating a 37,000-square-foot hanger at the Albuquerque International Sunport with LEDA assistance and expects to double its workforce over the next decade.
The state’s latest cluster-building initiative, New Space NM, could also benefit the local aerospace industry, as well as optics and information technology companies.
The initiative is uniting public and private entities in an effort to build New Mexico into a national hub for space-related business. With global investment in space technology growing exponentially, the state has an unprecedented opportunity to launch new companies, expand existing ones, and attract more out-of-state firms, said Casey DeRaad, an initiative leader.
“The emerging commercial space industry offers opportunities for all companies large and small, and we want to take advantage of it,” DeRaad said. “Grow, expand and attract are the three guiding goals for our cluster strategy.”