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Cleveland: The next biotech hub?
February 2010
by Amy Swinderman  |  Email the author
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A blank stare, followed by a pitying smile, mixed with slight disbelief—it's a reaction that has become all too familiar recently. It's the look I receive when people ask me where I (and the offices of this publication) reside, and I respond, "Cleveland."

It's a look I encountered several times during my recent trip to LabAutomation2010 in Palm Springs, and one that I have even been able to detect over the telephone in recent interviews. For example, a biotech company employee who shall remain nameless told me in December, "I was in Cleveland once. It was … well … it was … interesting." I'm fairly certain he didn't mean "interesting" in a complimentary way.

Yes, Cleveland is notorious for having perhaps more than its fair share of a multitude of problems: our river caught on fire in 1969; you'll either freeze or melt into a humid puddle, depending on the season (or even sometimes on the same day); our professional sports teams are obviously cursed; we're one of the fattest cities in the nation; our county government officials are under investigation by the FBI, to name a few.

Admittedly, I often join in and bash my own city. I feel that I have earned the right, having been born and raised here and given the opportunity to experience some of these shortcomings firsthand. But I am not a total Negative Nellie, and I know that given the chance and the right set of circumstances (and maybe a little faith), things could change for the better.

A few months ago, I interviewed some folks from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center (see "Research Triangle Park or bust," ddn October 2009), who walked me through the remarkable history of Research Triangle Park (RTP). This once rural area was completely transformed in recent decades when North Carolina's citizens, industry and government came together with the common goal of creating jobs and prosperity, eventually creating what we know as one of the main biotech hubs in the United States today.

Could this happen in Cleveland? Could we attract biotech and pharma companies to our city, where the median home price is about $106,000, and opportunities to work with some of the country's most highly regarded hospital and educational institutions—the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University, to name two—abound?

Dr. Gil Van Bokkelen, chairman and CEO of Athersys, a biopharmaceutical company located on Cleveland's near east side, seems to think so. In an interview for our cover story (see "Pfizer 'invests to win'") on Pfizer's recently signed collaboration deals—one of which involves Athersys' investigational stem cell therapy, MultiStem, for the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease—Bokkelen told me how the company landed here after one of its co-founders was recruited by CWRU, and why it has stayed.

"We saw a lot of things happening in Northeast Ohio that convinced us it might be a really good place to grow our company," he says. "The Cleveland Clinic, CWRU and University Hospitals are committed to creating a research hospital environment, and this provides us with tremendous cost efficiencies and infrastructure, both of which are an important part of the stem cell and regenerative medicine arena. We formed a multi-institutional alliance, which was supported by both the state and the NIH. These things allowed us to not only do important early research, but more importantly, to advance programs into clinical development. It's been tremendously exciting."

Like RTP, Cleveland's need for jobs and prosperity are there. The research institution foundation is there. Some identifiable success stories are there. Cleveland has many positive, attractive attributes to offer the biotech industry. So why can't it happen?

To quote the great baseball movie "Field of Dreams," "if you build it, they will come." Just bring a scarf, galoshes and swimming trunks with you when you do.

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