Friday, October 3, 2008

Cuts concern UA biotech guru Cusanovich

[Source: Dan Sullivan, Arizona Daily Star] - The summer between his freshman and sophomore years in college, Mike Cusanovich worked at a chemical company "making things that went boom and then making them go boom."

One day that summer, he was sitting in a bunker that suddenly exploded, sending him to the hospital for six weeks with burns on 60 percent of his body, a ruptured kidney and seared lungs.

After the catastrophic explosion, he decided to never work on anything that "went boom."

He went on to graduate school in biochemistry, which took him on a career path that has lasted more than 40 years.

Cusanovich, director of Arizona Research Laboratories and regents professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics, has been a leader in the state's bio industry. In recognition of his work, he has been presented with the Arizona BioIndustry Association Jon McGarity Leadership Award.

Here are excerpts from a conversation with Cusanovich:

Q: What is the significance of the award for you?

A: I'm no spring chicken, and I've reached a point in my career where I can make an investment for the long-term good of the state. … There's a rule in economic development, and that is economic development is regional — and there's a certain truth to that. Being recognized by the private sector for going across the lines, so to speak, is a very nice thing, and I'm very pleased with that. It also clearly demonstrates the university's efforts to reach out and be more engaged and not be as insular as universities typically are. It's been a real pleasure to work with all the companies and some city and county officials and the state Department of Commerce.

Q: Is there competition between Tucson and Phoenix to draw these companies to their areas?

A: I've always felt this competition argument was a little overplayed in the marketplace. The only competition comes in a really funny way and that is from a political standpoint — because of Phoenix's size and prominence in the Legislature, Tucson doesn't get its fair share of the pie. I don't know that competition is the right word, but it is a concern. … It's a political thing, not a private sector or university thing.

Q: Will the economic crisis have any repercussions in Arizona's bio industry?

A: There certainly will be. As far as I can tell, there's not capital out there right now, so that will probably slow growth. I can't say right now if there are any Southern Arizona bio companies that are at risk for this, but things move on. You need new drugs and you need new diagnostics. The demand is there, and these things will continue.

Q: How will recent cuts at the UA affect the bio industry?

A: The academic enterprise is severely damaged by that. It's a rational thing to do, and if you don't do it your choice is, do this or continue to die by a thousand cuts. Hopefully, after this next round of cuts, the state's economy will get under control and we can build back again. Another reason for retransforming is that our peer institutions will try and cherry-pick our best people, and that's what we can least afford to lose.

Q: Where do you see Arizona's bio industry in five or 10 years?

A: There might be a slight dip in technologies floating out of the universities, but growth will certainly continue. To foster growth, the state and regional governments need to facilitate growth. They need to be tuned in to the advantages of high-tech in general.

Q: What impact will the new biopark on the South Side have on Southern Arizona?

A: It will create a quasi-critical mass, which should help all the companies share central resources and interact with each other and share ideas. I am also particularly impressed by the Bio High School that is being planned because we need to get more kids tracked into the tech area, and this is one way to do it, as well as facilitate developing a work force to support the growing bio-tech industry.

No comments: