Business of Health: A role for state government in science and technology
By Stephen Prescott
Copyright © 2016, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
At a mere 109 years old, Oklahoma is a relative babe in arms when it comes to statehood. And while we may lack the history and pedigree of some of our older counterparts, our state — like many a youth — more than compensates with innovation and energy.
Take, as one example, the role that our state’s government has played in stimulating the growth of science and technology.
In many places, the emergence of this sector of the economy happened spontaneously. Take, for example, Silicon Valley, where the computer industry took root. Or the growth of biotechnology businesses in the greater Boston area.
In each of these cases, research at local academic institutions planted the initial seeds. Spinoff companies formed around the ideas that emerged from labs at Stanford, Harvard, Tufts and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The success of early spinoff companies generated resources, stimulated ideas and drew talent that, in turn, fertilized the growth of new research projects and complementary businesses.
Unfortunately for Oklahoma — and just about every other state in the union not named California or Massachusetts — this model is now pretty much impossible to duplicate. As this sector of the economy matured, it rapidly became clear that companies like Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Biogen and Genzyme (now Sanofi) would no longer simply sprout unwatered and untended from the groves of academe.
Nevertheless, our state’s leaders understood that this sector was too important to Oklahoma’s long-term economic health (and the health of our population) to ignore. So they took some farsighted steps to try to catalyze the development of science and technology in Oklahoma.
First, led by Stanton Young, they mapped out the Oklahoma Health Center, which, in the mold of the Texas Medical Center, clustered the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, the VA Medical Center and many other health- and research-focused entities. The idea was to build a critical mass of like-minded scientists and health professionals, which would stimulate the cross-pollination of ideas and collaborative research projects.
Then, in the late 1980s, legislators created the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Recognizing the key role that seed funding could play in the growth of technology-based economic development, OCAST used state funds — awarded in the form of relatively small grants — to support early-stage research projects. Using peer review, OCAST identified projects that, with support, were likely to mature into larger initiatives.
The model, one of the first of its kind and now widely imitated, has produced countless successes. OCAST’s applied research grants have, in turn, spawned hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants for state researchers. Meanwhile, its more business- and entrepreneur-focused grants have given birth to a host of successful research and technology companies across the state.
Our state’s science and technology landscape has grown significantly since OCAST’s founding in 1987, and that growth has created additional needs beyond early-stage research funding. When it became clear that Oklahoma entrepreneurs needed expertise and funding to help navigate the treacherous water of growing a young business, OCAST created i2E, which since 1999 has helped more than 650 young companies with financial and strategic support.
More recently, with funding from the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, the state created the Oklahoma Center for Adult Stem Cell Research, which uses targeted granting to accelerate projects in this emerging field. Again, this model of state-funded incubation is essential to help grow infrastructure in a highly competitive field where Oklahoma historically lacks the foundation that some other states enjoy.
Around these state-funded programs, vital sources of private support have also emerged. Lead among these is the Presbyterian Health Foundation, which has refocused its resources on scientific granting to support basic and applied research. And working with OMRF, PHF also created Accele BioPharma, an incubator company that is helping to grow young biotechnology startups into mature, successful businesses.
Of course, Oklahoma is not alone in constructing a matrix of state and private support to grow and sustain its science and technology. Indeed, even California and Massachusetts now invest substantial sums through state initiatives to sustain the momentum created more serendipitously in an earlier, simpler time.
The legislative session that ended last month was a challenging one. Faced with difficult funding choices, lawmakers reaffirmed the state’s continued investments in OCAST, i2E and the science and the technology infrastructure they support. This decision was crucial to keeping Oklahoma on a level playing field with other states.
Almost 30 years ago, Oklahoma took a bold step by creating OCAST. The manifold rewards we have reaped show the wisdom of that decision — and of continued state investment in science and technology.
A physician and medical researcher, Prescott is president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and can be reached at [email protected].