Grunke Column: Life Sciences Can Breathe New Life Into Missoula’s Economy

The life sciences are booming all across the U.S., and offer significant potential for Missoula as we look to expand and diversify our economy.

A recent roundtable of Missoula-based life science business leaders and researchers at the University of Montana illustrated that potential, and helped build momentum for future growth and development.

Our community has just the right mix of intellectual assets and infrastructure to support vigorous growth of the life science industry. Missoula, in fact, has certain assets that provide us with a distinct competitive advantage.

Let’s back up a minute and take a look at this critical economic sector, then discuss what it could mean for growing local jobs and wealth.

In the past, economic development efforts typically focused on the creation of additional manufacturing jobs. However, the future of communities such as ours depends upon the successful development of a robust knowledge-based economy.

Technology is one piece of that economic sector; life sciences are another.

But what are the life sciences? Simply put, businesses in this sector help to improve our quality of life. They are involved in health care, pharmaceuticals, medical technology, animal husbandry, agriculture, and food science.

Research and development in the life sciences directly affect how we grow and harvest crops, how we prevent and treat illnesses and disease, and how we power our vehicles and communities.

The United States leads the world in life-science industry research and development, with spending of $93 billion in 2014, up 2.2 percent from the previous year. Importantly, that growth came primarily from smaller biopharmaceutical innovators and medical device manufacturers.

Moving forward, “big data” will become an integral part of life science companies. Mobile health also is expected to take the industry in new directions, as health care shifts to a patient-centered, value-based model of delivery.

Of course, competition is fierce for the significant additional revenues, research dollars and jobs expected in the life sciences over the next decade. All 50 states are offering economic incentives for bioscience companies interested in relocating, expanding or launching within their borders.

Our community, and state, should continue to focus on this economic sector, not only for the new wealth generation and related growth opportunities for small firms, but because of the research already underway at the University of Montana.

Communities where life science initiatives are taking off share a few key characteristics, including strong academics, vigorous local networking and collaboration, connections and partnerships with other life science centers, and mechanisms for translating research into commercial products.

Once concentrated in large metropolitan areas, life science research and manufacturing firms are now moving to smaller, less costly and more livable areas – places like Missoula.

Our community’s incredible potential for growth in this economic sector was clear to all in attendance at the recent roundtable. The life sciences already provide a significant number of local jobs, but could support thousands more in the future – both from homegrown start-ups and from firms that relocate and expand here.

We have an advantage over every other community in Montana, in the University of Montana and its world-class researchers. Nowhere is that truth more evident than when we bring business and education leaders together at forums such as the life science roundtable.

There is no single formula for economic success.

To succeed, therefore, Missoula must take advantage of its unique combination of infrastructure, core competencies and human capital, and position itself for future opportunities by putting into place the tools and resources required by knowledge-based industries.

James Grunke is president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership. His column appears monthly in the Missoulian’s Western Montana InBusiness section.








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