If you could do one thing to make life better for others, what would it be? Would you work to create a cancer free world? Would you find answers for diseases that steal away our precious memories? Would you develop new tools that make it easier for doctors to help patients? Would you find new ways to make healthcare more accessible and more affordable? Would you develop new ways to prevent diseases altogether? These are just a few of the health challenges that members of the Arizona bioscience community work on.

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Catalysts for Arizona bioscience

Twenty years ago, as Arizona leaders came together and committed to focus on growing our bioscience sector there were a handful of great medical technology companies working with our health systems to create health innovations. Today, there are over two thousand firms working to make life better for people in Arizona and around the world.

Two things happened in 2002 that served as catalysts for this impressive growth. The first was the creation of the Translational Genomics Research Institute or TGen for short. The second was when over one hundred leaders came together with support from the Flinn Foundation to create the original Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap, a 10-year strategic plan for building our bioscience sector. The updated plan now extends to 2024. According to TEConomy Partners, it is the longest running, continuously measured plan in the country designed to grow a statewide bioscience cluster.

Arizona is recognized nationally as having one of the fastest growing life science clusters in the country. CBRE has recognized Phoenix as one of the top emerging markets in the United States. Southern Arizona is also gaining national attention. Our state’s life science sector still needs to grow more before it will take its place among the ranks of the top-ten life science states but as we enter our third decade of bioscience focus, new catalysts are taking shape that will spark new growth and help to foster new health innovations.

Homes for health innovators

A blossoming Phoenix Bioscience Core is continuing to grow downtown. The PBC is already home to TGen, the University of Arizona College of Medicine Phoenix, Dignity Health Cancer Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, the Health Sciences Education Building, the Arizona Life Science Collaborative, and 850 PBC which opened in 2021. Today the PBC is home to educators, researchers, clinicians, and innovative life science companies including Exact Sciences and others.

Mayo Clinic is committed to creating a Discovery Oasis on 228 acres of land adjacent to its campus in North Phoenix with a goal to expand its patient-centered model of care and paving the way to develop a transformative biotechnology corridor.

Plaza Companies identified Park Central in Phoenix, a strategically located shopping center, as a perfect opportunity for adaptive reuse. Today, a refreshed and revitalized Park Central is taking shape with the new Creighton University Medical School as its anchor.

Tempe has multiple Innovation Hubs that are home to global leaders including BD Peripheral Intervention and Medtronic, the headquarters of Sonora Quest Laboratories, and the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University.

In Southern Arizona, The Bridges is Tech Parks Arizona’s newest offering. The site will soon be home to a dynamic community of technology companies. The first new building at the UA Tech Park at The Bridges opened in 2022. It is named “The Refinery” because of its proximity to the University of Arizona, where talent and bright minds can be mined by companies.

Growing our talent base

Growing companies need talented people to drive them forward. Arizona’s universities are training and graduating a growing base of talented business and STEM students. Taking it the next step, the new LabForce training system will provide ongoing education on the technical and soft skills that are in demand. Arizona’s competitive cost of living and growing field of career opportunities is attracting experienced life science professionals from other states, especially from colder climates and a much more costly California.

The high hurdle

The highest hurdle Arizona must clear before taking its place in the top-ten is having enough early-stage capital to sustain its burgeoning field of biopharmaceutical, medtech, and digital health companies. The $240 million in venture capital investment in 2021 was the highest single-year amount since data reporting began and a 165% jump since 2018. Arizona’s average amount over the past three years was $155 million, compared to a total of $34 million in 2002. Yet, when compared to similarly sized life science markets, Arizona continues to fall behind.

Two new catalysts are forming to address this ever-growing need.

The first is AZAdvances, an initiative of the Opportunity Through Entrepreneurship Foundation. Created based on a best practices study of life science accelerators round the US and internationally, AZAdvances programs are designed to provide funding and the entrepreneurial and workforce programs Arizona’s growing life science companies need by leveraging donations from philanthropists and grants from government sources.

The Arizona Legislature created the second catalyst during the 2022 legislative session. The Arizona Health Innovation Trust Fund is a perpetual endowment administered by the Arizona State Treasurer’s Office. As the funds in the trust mature, the State Treasurer will annually allocate four percent of the monies in the Fund to an entity that is a qualified 501(c)(3) charitable organization that provides entrepreneurial education, mentoring and support to persons in the health innovation and health care delivery sectors in Arizona; provides workforce development programs designed to support the talent requirements of employers in health innovation and health care delivery in Arizona; and provides programs that support development and commercialization of health innovation by businesses that are based in Arizona and employ fewer than 100 employees. The 2023 state budget included $100,000 to provide the initial seed capital for the trust. The goal is to build the trust to $200 million in coming years through a combination of private donations and public monies. The ongoing distributions from the Trust, as invested by the non-profit, will help early-stage Arizona life science companies clear their capital hurdles. The larger the trust grows, the greater the impact it will make each year.

Place, people and purse

The catalysts for the next phase of growth in Arizona’s life science sector are the Three P’s – Place, People, and Purse. The investments we have made in the past and the initiatives planned for the future are delivering the places where health innovations are discovered, developed, and delivered to patients. The funding that Arizona continues to provide to our universities and community colleges is building today’s workforce and tomorrow’s.

Our opportunity is to work together as industry, philanthropy, and public partners to fully fund AZAdvances and the Arizona Health Innovation Trust Fund so that Arizona discoveries progress to become health innovations that benefit people in Arizona and around the world.


Author: Joan Koerber-Walker is president and CEO of the Arizona Bioindustry Association.