Issue Date: January 1, 2007
The reception for the Council of State Bioscience Associations, gathered in San Juan, P.R., for its annual retreat, was buzzing. Delegates had just left a presentation by Pridco, the Puerto Rican economic development agency, and many were bowled over by what they had learned. Noting that the commonwealth boasts a quarter of the world's installed biopharmaceutical manufacturing capacity, two delegates from Virginia remarked that they "had no idea" so much biotech was happening on the island.
That's exactly the kind of reaction that Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá, Puerto Rico's governor, would like to change. "We are one of the best-kept secrets in the industry-and if it's a secret, it's our own fault," Acevedo-Vilá told C&EN after the reception.
Though Puerto Rico has been recognized for decades as a major hub for conventional pharmaceutical manufacturing, the island has quietly become a leading destination for companies looking to add biopharmaceutical capacity. But he realizes that flying under the radar is not the best strategy as competition for projects becomes fierce. Singapore and Ireland are working hard to be considered the premier sites for life sciences development, and there are rumblings that countries such as Malaysia and Costa Rica are planning to join the fray.
Since taking office in 2005, Acevedo-Vilá has become a strong advocate for biotechnology on the island, with an interest in nurturing both industrial and academic development. In fact, his first executive order as governor was to make the promotion and development of biotechnology a priority.
To put muscle behind the order, he created a task force of all the agencies that deal with permits and processes and charged them with pushing biotechnology projects through the system faster. Those initiatives, among others, led the Biotechnology Industry Organization to name him "Governor of the Year" at its annual convention last April.
The importance Acevedo-Vilá places on developing the island's biotech industry is even reflected in his economic development plan. The three tenets of his administration are to improve and reform government, to create new opportunities for small businesses, and to focus on the life sciences.
Acevedo-Vilá believes that the continued success of industry on the island depends on transitioning from a "working economy" to a "thinking economy." This means that Puerto Rico must provide more than just economic incentives for business; becoming a thinking economy means creating an environment in which business can flourish. To make this shift happen in the life sciences, the commonwealth intends to cultivate the tools necessary for drug discovery and development, process development, and clinical trials.
"No longer will Puerto Ricans simply make products," Acevedo-Vilá told the state bioscience representatives at the reception. "Puerto Rico will use one of its best advantages-our dedicated, skilled workforce-to research, design, develop, and test products."
Orchestrating that shift is no small task. The lion's share of the jobs created by the pharmaceutical industry in Puerto Rico were in manufacturing-primarily running formulation and packaging plants that pump out 14 of the top 20 drugs sold around the world. Realizing his vision will require bolstering the academic prowess of the island, investing in world-class research facilities, retraining the workforce to meet the needs of the biotech industry, and last but not least, changing the perception that the commonwealth is purely a tax haven for manufacturers.
It will also require reversing the scientific brain drain from Puerto Rico. The governor points out that the dean of the University of Puerto Rico's medical school, Walter R. Frontera, is a well-known physician who left Harvard University to return to the island. Acevedo-Vilá's hope is that others will be enticed by the government's strong commitment to biotech research.
The governor is also encouraging more collaboration among academia, government, and industry. The island has a top engineering school and a strong medical sciences campus, "but they were not working with companies or together," he acknowledges. "We need to mix them."
The push to expand the biotech infrastructure is not just about promoting new growth, Acevedo-Vilá says. Turning the island into a hot spot for biotech research is also necessary to preserve existing industrial businesses. Direct and indirect jobs created by the pharmaceutical industry account for 11.4% of overall employment on the island.
Puerto Rico is a "manufacturing powerhouse," Acevedo-Vilá notes, a title it has enjoyed for the past 20 to 30 years. "In order to be important in that area, I am convinced you have to move to the prior stage, which is R&D," he adds. "Otherwise, at some point we may lose that advantage."
The business environment is a competitive one, Acevedo-Vilá says, particularly given the trend to outsource manufacturing to Asia. He acknowledges that "we're going to lose jobs in the manufacturing sector" but says those losses will come from other industries and that the life sciences will continue to grow.
Looking ahead, Acevedo-Vilá is confident that his ambitious plan can work. "I foresee a great increase in biotech investment on the island," he says. "It will take more time, but I foresee a solid increase in research and development, too."
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