Can You Host the Next Biotech Hub?
MAP: TODD HARRISON
Fifteen years ago, Tom Clark walked into Ted Levine's office at Development Counsellors International (DCI), saw a bunch of weary guys sitting at their desks with their ties askew and their shirtsleeves rolled up, and decided this was not the marketing firm for his city.
Clark, the executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, says he ended up hiring another firm to try to promote Denver as, among other things, a biotech center. It didn't work out. Years passed. And then, in mid-2004, Clark says he finally made the decision he should have made in the first place: He hired Levine's company to promote Denver's transportation initiatives, medical research, and of course, its quest for life science companies.
"When you're in a second-tier town in this particular area," says Clark, "you need to get some visibility nationally." That is DCI's specialty. The company, founded in 1960, says it is the only marketing firm that specializes specifically in promoting places and regions, not products. Its clients have included groups from New Orleans (pre-Katrina, to tout the city as more than just a tourist town), Anchorage, Alaska (to publicize this out-of-the-way place for business), and Indianapolis (to show that the city isn't only about the Indy 500).
"Our challenge, quite frankly," explains Andy Levine, Ted Levine's son and the president of DCI, "is going into a community and trying to figure out what makes it unique, what makes it different, what makes it special from a business-advantage perspective." DCI then tries to tell this story to the decision makers who might be interested in that advantage. In many cases that's when DCI turns to trade magazines, journals, and the mainstream press. The firm invites reporters to visit their client city, much like they did late last year in Kalamazoo, and then hopes that the city's story reaches a wider audience.
"DCI impressed our committee the most," says David Nikoloff, president of the Economic Development County of Lancaster County, Pa., who hired DCI to represent his group about a year ago. Nikoloff, like his counterparts in Kalamazoo, hired the firm, in part, to promote Lancaster as a place where biotech and life science companies could thrive. "The whole idea," says Nikoloff, "is to try to attract that industry. You hear places like Possum Butt, North Dakota, are trying to become the biggest biocenter in the world. Everybody thinks they can do it. 'Oh, we have a hospital ... We have a college ... We have both.'"
"I have no doubt," continues Nikoloff. "But the problem is trying to figure out where your community fits in and setting goals that are [perhaps] a little bit out of reach, so you have to struggle to reach them, but [they're] also rational."
Joe Cortright, author of a 2002 report for The Brookings Institution about biotech clusters in US cities, says he would suggest that regional leaders temper their expectations even more. He believes far too many regions are focusing on attracting biotech, when they should be spending their time elsewhere.
"I think it's entirely possible that they're all doing the wrong thing," Cortright says. "Ten years ago, everybody was trying to be the next Silicon something-or-other. Five years ago, everyone wanted to have the next dotcom venture. Since two years ago, everybody in the industry, in lockstep, has said: 'We're going to be big in biotech.'"
This is what analysts call the me-too effect. "People are chasing a fad," says Scott Wallsten, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, DC, think tank. But since it is a profitable fad, the challenges many regions face in becoming a life science cluster probably won't be enough to dissuade them from trying, at least for now. Even in Bemidji, Minn., a town of 12,000 people 200 miles north of Minneapolis, people want a piece of the action.
"This," says Larry Young, director of the Joint Economic Development Commission in Bemidji, "is an exciting time."