Former IU tech-transfer chief: State isn’t competitive enough

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Mark Long was president of the Indiana University Research & Technology Corp., which was responsible for the university’s tech transfer, before launching a consulting firm, Long Performance Advisors, in 2008. Based near Bloomington at Ellettsville, Long has helped organizations in Russia, China, Malaysia and the United States with small-business incubators, among other tasks. Long discussed his observations in an e-mail interview with IBJ Focus Editor Norm Heikens.

IBJ: You’re traveling a lot for your consulting gig. What are you seeing, and has your perspective on the life sciences in Indiana changed?

LONG: Certainly I’ve noticed almost every state and country—international is a whole other discussion—has a life sciences or bioscience initiative. The differences are the types and levels of support by state government and different agencies.

For instance, in Kansas, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri and several other states, there is much more support for business incubation. State government actually provides monies for operational funding of the state’s bioscience incubators. Also, much more funding is put into funds like Indiana’s 21st Century Fund, and the funding is available at earlier stages—that so-called early-stage, valley-of-death startup funding that is so critical for life sciences companies.

Those states are no better off financially than Indiana. They’re just making their life sciences efforts a priority, by funding agencies’ incubation and startup funds. They see the value in early-stage entrepreneurial support.

IBJ: Any reasons you can see for the higher priority of life sciences?

LONG: The recent boom in biotech has led almost every state to see life sciences as the wave of the future to replace aging manufacturing and traditional industries as the economic growth engine for tomorrow. Life sciences is a tremendously broad field, with applications in medicine and health, agriculture and crop science, animal health and food science. Even, as it was put so well to Benjamin Braddack in “The Graduate” as the wave of the future—“plastics”—bioplastics, that is.

This broad range of coverage, coupled with the pace of discovery and emphasis on science and technology on the federal, state and university levels, gives many states hope that, indeed, life sciences will take the place of traditional industries in the economic architecture of job growth in their respective communities.

IBJ: Is this hope realistic? Is there room in life sciences for everyone?

LONG: It’s difficult to imagine every state being a life sciences player, although there are plenty of different areas of specialization where states could form a center of excellence. We’re just beginning to chip away at the iceberg of life sciences. Of course, there will be dominant players emerging and some secondary players and some also-rans when the dust settles.

What will make the difference in a state moving to the top of the heap are the investments made now, in infrastructure, in providing early-stage investment capital for startups, in education of our youth in sciences, math and technology, in providing support for university research, and in encouraging entrepreneurial education at all levels. You can’t throw a few dollars at something and do things half-heartedly and expect to finish in the top 10.

IBJ: You mentioned that international is a whole other discussion. What did you mean?

LONG: People tend to forget it’s not just other states that have life sciences initiatives. It’s other entire countries. I’ve been working with Malaysia on a huge initiative there where the government is working on converting its economy from an IT-based economy to more of a biosciences-based economy. The government is pouring money and resources into forming new companies, training entrepreneurs, supporting incubation and attracting corporate partners from around the world.

Russia, China, Japan, Sweden, Germany, France—you name it—they have similar national initiatives, and local and regional initiatives, as well. They are fiercely competitive for new ideas, new companies and new entrepreneurs. Today’s entrepreneurs aren’t afraid to take their companies and go global if the better resources and easier monetary sources are there, not here.

IBJ: Do any examples come to mind where a life sciences company has taken its marbles to another country?

LONG: Yes, actually, two of them, but they’d both shoot me if I told you who they are. They’re both sort of still here in Indiana, but a large portion of their R&D and operations is overseas now. Why? Because it’s cheaper and faster and better over there than it is here, that’s why.

IBJ: So, overall, how would you rate Indiana’s competitiveness?

LONG: It’s time Indiana stopped talking about its potential and started talking about its performance. To compare it to IndyCar racing, we have pretty good drivers, a great pit crew and a decent car, but we’re really low on fuel and our engine technology is suspect compared to some of the other race teams.

It’s time we stepped up the game by making sure we invest in Indiana entrepreneurs, making sure we provide the necessary early-stage seed capital where it’s needed, focusing our efforts on areas of specialization where we get the most bang for our buck, and supporting the infrastructure of incubation and entrepreneurial education that will make a real difference for tomorrow’s companies.•

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