Missoula vaccine partnership: Best fit for Missoula’s future

In economic development, we look for best-fit opportunities. For Missoula, that means a business with a highly marketable, value-added product or service and a need for a highly educated or skilled talent base to produce it. The Missoula Vaccine Partnership is just such a best-fit opportunity.

First, there is a significant demand for the group’s product. In 2009, the H1N1 outbreak shined a spotlight on the U.S. government’s challenges in producing medical countermeasures to emerging infectious diseases, pandemic outbreaks and outright bioterrorism threats. In the wake of identifying serious deficiencies in the system, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) called for a “nimble, flexible capability to produce medical countermeasures in the face of any attack or threat …”

A key element in HHS’ new strategy is to increase vaccine production capacity nationwide. To do this, the government intends to provide grants to biomedical leaders for the necessary manufacturing infrastructure to produce vaccines safely, quickly and in large quantities. This, on top of a vaccine market with an estimated $22 billion in sales annually, points to a sector that is rapidly growing and has great promise for the future.

Enter the Missoula Vaccine Partnership led by Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Biologicals Inc. This partnership aims to capitalize on that promise by building a flexible biomanufacturing facility here and ultimately securing contracts from private and public entities to produce a variety of vaccines.

The venture, if successful, will generate high-paying jobs in multiple sectors. Biomedical facilities of this type can cost upward of $30 million to build, creating significant and highly skilled construction opportunities upfront. Average wages in vaccine development and production run near $50,000 per year — well above Missoula’s current average wage. Take the new Medicago U.S.A. facility in Triangle Park, North Carolina, as an example. This 90,000 square-foot facility cost $40 million to build, employs 85 people at an average wage of $50,229 per year and produces 120,000 doses of pandemic influenza vaccine annually.

Missoula is an excellent location for this type of operation because we have the ideal talent and support bases. A pool of biological scientists with training and research facilities already exists in the Missoula area (per the Garner Research Report of April 2010). The University of Montana has qualified staff and provides opportunities for collaboration through its School of Pharmacy and College of Technology. In addition, support from public and private organizations in Montana may be available. For example, LigoCyte (a Bozeman company) is a potential customer for clinical trial vaccine material. Finally, Rocky Mountain Biologicals today, through its network, has the biotechnology expertise to facilitate a project of this scope.

The skilled-job creation, local-income-multiplier effects and potential to generate business from both public and private sectors for a range of products could generate substantial economic returns for Missoula, and Montana, on a sustainable basis. In short, this is exactly the kind of investment and employment we need in Missoula. And we can help make it happen, simply by supporting a local, proven company — Rocky Mountain Biologicals.

To help make it happen, the Missoula Economic Partnership is involved at the ground level. Currently, we are working with the Missoula Vaccine Partnership and other stakeholders to fund a feasibility study that will examine parameters such as required resources, relevant partnering opportunities, available funding opportunities, and competitive considerations in order to assess commercialization considerations and to create recommendations for moving forward. Once funded, the study duration is projected to be 90 days and key stakeholders will form an oversight committee to ensure the study is conducted according to agreed-upon deliverables and with the correct level of accountability.

Ultimately, a combination of local seed funding and federal funding, along with federal and private contracts, will be needed to make vaccine production a commercial reality for the Missoula Vaccine Partnership. Again, we will work closely with Missoula Vaccine Partnership to secure that funding should the group decide to move forward with the venture.

In the meantime, we encourage you to follow the progress of this promising best-fit opportunity through our ongoing reports.

Missoula Economic Partnership | 500 N. Higgins Ave. | Suite 300 | Missoula, Montana 59802 | P: 406.541.6461 | F: 406.541.6464