By Jim Stafford
Copyright (©) 2015, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
If there were an award for attendance at the annual Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) convention, then my friend Josh O’Brien would no doubt be a finalist for the recognition.
When the 2015 BIO International Convention and Trade Show convenes in Philadelphia on June 15, O’Brien will be among about 60 Oklahomans representing the Oklahoma Biotechnology Association in a pavilion on the floor of the show.
It will be his 13th straight BIO show, beginning with Washington, D.C., back in 2003. O’Brien is director of entrepreneurial development for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber.
Since the 2003 show in Washington that featured less than a dozen economic development professionals from Oklahoma, O’Brien and his colleagues at the chamber have helped grow the effort substantially.
Through his efforts, hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised for the annual trip, dozens of biotechnology companies and organizations invited to participate, and countless prep meetings organized.
“It’s been gratifying to see this program take off,” O’Brien said. “I’m just one piece of it, but in the time I’ve been a part of it we decided that instead of just having economic development officials we needed to have a pavilion and have our bioscience talent there.”
That translates into scores of Oklahoma scientists, biotech entrepreneurs and educators who have participated in the BIO trip over the years.
Along the way, a study by the Battelle consulting group — commissioned by the chamber — recommended the creation of a statewide group to promote the industry and a strategic plan to grow it. Mission accomplished when the OKBio Association was created in 2008.
“I’m proud of our chamber for putting our money and our time around a state organization and this international event,” O’Brien said. “We’ve got partners from all over the state. We have Stillwater, we have Norman, we have Ardmore, we have Ponca City and Tulsa. They are all represented and I think that’s helped maintain the image that is it truly built around the OKBio brand.”
For the state of Oklahoma, the effort has paid off over the years in contracts signed with research and investment partners who were discovered at the show and executives who came to work in Oklahoma.
And there is another, less tangible benefit.
Oklahoma is now recognized as a big-league state not just for basketball, but for its life sciences industry.
“When we started we got a lot of ‘I didn’t realize there was biotech in Oklahoma,’” O’Brien said. “Now we are a known commodity. I think being there consistently year in and year out, people recognize that’s not a surprise any more.”
As an added bonus, a spirit of camaraderie developed among Oklahomans who didn’t know one another until they met on the floor of the BIO show.
In fact, that enthusiasm for working together among the Oklahoma contingent is perhaps O’Brien’s treasured memory from 13 years of BIO shows.
“It sounds corny, but it’s really true,” he said. “What I’ve always appreciated is how we brought groups together to work. We made it productive, but we made it fun, too. It’s nice to see organizations that did not know each other work together. I always think of that.”
Jim Stafford writes about the state’s life sciences industry on behalf of the Oklahoma Bioscience Association.