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Region needs to make financial commitment to biotech companies, speaker says

| Thursday, Oct. 25, 2001

If the Pittsburgh region is to become a major biotechnology center, it will need the support of local financial sources.

So far, that commitment hasn't been made, said Victor Weedn, director of Biotechnology and Health Initiatives at Carnegie Mellon University.

Weedn, speaking Wednesday at a Livable Communities/Sustainable Communities Symposium at CMU, said community leaders, both public and private, in other cities such as Seattle, San Diego, Boston and Kansas City have pledged millions of dollars to help new biotech companies locate in their cities.

In hopes of securing more funding for biotech firms, Weedn has been involved in the creation of BioVenture, a collaborative initiative with the University of Pittsburgh. Its purpose is to raise and spend funds in biotechnology investment within this region.

But with 41 states putting their money into biotechnology economic development, the chance of the Pittsburgh area attracting and keeping new biotech companies becomes more difficult, he said.

Even so, biotech companies have located in Harmarville, Oakland and the South Side, he said.

"Biotechnology has grown over 27 percent in the last decade, and the average wage of workers can range from $52,000 to $82,800," he said.

There are other efforts under way to encourage biotech companies to locate here.

Richard Pearson, co-founder and chief executive officer of BioSpace Development Co. LLC, is set to begin construction within two months of a facility that will cater to high-tech companies.

"We are building modular space for the gazelles (new, fast growing companies) that will help them reduce their upfront costs and succeed," he said.

The first site will be the former MacIntosh-Hemphill plant on the South Side, which his firm will develop in partnership with Carlson & McGinley Real Estate Services.

In the future, he hopes to develop similar space in the Terminal Building, on Second Avenue, and a former steel company building on 31st Street in Lawrenceville.

These facilities will have all the requirements for high-tech and biotech companies, such as fiber optics, movable walls, individually controlled heating and cooling systems, and high ceilings.

To make sites work, they must be within 10 minutes travel time to downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland, have direct access to one of the city's rivers, easy access to bike and walking trails, and have abundant on-site parking, Pearson said.

Also working to help new companies with less than 15 employees find suitable space is Deborah Baron, chief executive officer of Cool Space Locator, a commercial real estate firm in Pittsburgh.

There is some state funds allocated to aiding new biotech companies, said former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell. "However, of the $160 million the state received from the tobacco companies, only $60 million is for venture capital, and that's for the entire state," he said.

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