State’s life sciences sector on rise while struggling with talent, capital

Shortages of talent and capital remain the two biggest challenges for Indiana’s life sciences industry, which is otherwise showing robust vital signs and is embarking on several high-profile collaborations.

Those emerged as the central themes during a six-person panel discussion at IBJ’s Life Sciences Power Breakfast, which drew about 300 people to the downtown Marriott on Thursday morning.

“It’s not that we don’t have enough jobs for all the talented people,” said panelist David Johnson, CEO of the life sciences initiative BioCrossroads. “We don’t have enough talented people for the jobs.”

Life science companies in Indiana search wide and far for scientific and business talent, but are competing against thousands of similar firms in Massachusetts, New York, California and other states that can offer high salaries and alluring environments.

To cope with that, small and growing companies should model a belief in local talent, and not immediately seek hires on the East and West Coasts, said panelist Colleen Hittle, managing director of Navigant, which provides support for life science companies.

Purdue University, which licenses out three technologies a week, often collaborates with industry but wants to do more, said Suresh Garimella, Purdue’s executive vice president of research and partnerships. “We can help with the human capital piece of the life sciences,” he said.

The relationship can be a two-way street. Purdue researchers collaborate with Indianapolis-based Dow AgroSciences to make sure the technology is “on point” with farmers’ needs, said Brian Barker, general manager of U.S. Seeds for Dow AgroSciences. And the company often hires Purdue graduates.

One industry challenge is how to pay highly educated, highly skilled people who can help turn an idea into an innovation, said Kristin Sherman, former chief financial officer of Calibrium LLC, a diabetes startup that was acquired last year by pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk.

Employees who can accept low pay but high equity “are music to a startup’s ears,” she said.

The average wage in Indiana’s life sciences sector is $96,000 according to an annual report issued earlier this year by BioCrossroads, using research compiled by the Indiana Business Research Center and Indiana University.

The sector, with about 56,000 workers, has a $62 billion annual economic impact for the state.

Major life science companies in Indiana include Eli Lilly and Co., Roche Diagnostics, Cook Medical and several orthopedics makers clustered around Warsaw.

But the state also hosts hundreds of smaller companies and startups, from testing labs to diagnostics firms.

One way Indiana hopes to compete and collaborate more is by developing an innovation district on 60 acres of land just north of the Indiana University School of Medicine campus on the outskirts of downtown Indianapolis.

The development, called 16 Tech, is expected to include a mix of research labs, corporate offices, business incubators, working spaces, apartments, retail business and parks.

The anchor tenant will be the Indiana Biosciences Research Institute, a startup effort aimed at building a thriving cluster of local life sciences businesses.

The huge development is designed to be a “technology convergence” area with related firms cross-pollinating—and just a cool place to be, Johnson said.

Meanwhile, some life science companies that have been in business for decades are looking in new directions to cope with challenges.

AIT Laboratories, a large testing lab, has had to look for new opportunities in response to deep cuts in Medicare reimbursements. One new focus is on drug testing, due to the explosion of opioid use in the Appalachian Midwest and other regions of the country.

The company faced the challenges and tried to adapt, said panelist Matthew Neff, AIT’s president and CEO. Along the way, he said, it has modeled its mantra: “calibrate, innovate and elevate.”

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