Marnie LaVigne's job is to breathe life into the life sciences industry in the Buffalo Niagara region.
So far, that decade-long push has spawned more than 250 companies across the region - some tiny, some substantial - and LaVigne, an associate vice president for economic development at the University at Buffalo, says much progress has been made, although much more work needs to be done.
LaVigne recently discussed the development of the life sciences industry in the region.
Q: The World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara recently received nearly $700,000 in federal and local funding aimed at helping local life sciences companies export their products to China. How will that help?
A: We're pumping our effort and focus on innovation, but the reality is turning that into product that gets to the marketplace. How do I actually sell that product, particularly in a global economy? To be honest, our innovators typically haven't done that part of the business.
From my vantage point, this is a perfect marriage. From the university end of it, we're doing a lot of technology development, but we are finally to a point where we're ready to get the product to market, but our companies are stymied. Our small companies literally don't know how to get into a market like China from step one. Our more mature companies, or even those with a couple million dollars in revenues, they're saying our big worry is it's taking too much time to get through their regulatory process. Can you help us with that?
Q: What kind of help will be available through the program?
A: What this means is we get a team of experts working directly with our companies, giving the kind of advice that we could never learn from a book, that we could never give quickly enough without experts who have been there and done that.
This is where you can really start to see these companies grow. As soon as their revenues, because of exporting, grow, they reinvest that not only in research and development and hiring in R&D, but also delivery of those products and expansion.
Q: Most of our medical device exports now go to Canada. Why China?
A:The size of the market is staggering. It's also fraught with a lot of complexities, but to not be there will hamstring our companies. We've got to give them this downstream help.
Q: Are the local life sciences companies focusing on Canada now because it's next door?
A: It's very likely that it is a proximity issue. We have been focused on U.S. markets. Canada has been a terrific and wonderful partner. Now it's time to hit some of those more complex opportunities.
Q: In the big picture, where does the whole effort to develop a life sciences industry here stand?
A: We've learned a lot. As a community, it was around 2000 when we said life sciences is where we need to be. Since that time, we've learned what we need to assemble in what we call "the ecosystem." We've put in a place a number of resources and programs to help with new company start-ups.
Now, we're looking at what are the gaps we still have. We're looking to make it more efficient so companies and opportunities coming to this ecosystem move through as quickly as possible. Certainly we've seen success, with dozens of life sciences companies since this initiative started.
But there are certain pieces - regulatory issues - that are important in the U.S. and they're important globally. That's an area we haven't really tackled. If you were to tell me that you needed a regulatory consultant, I don't really have a lot of options for you. Now we do.
Q: Getting companies the capital they need has been a big challenge locally. Has that improved?
A: On the early end of the spectrum, the capital and the entrepreneurial talent is improving. We've seen some new programs coming out for seed capital. I'd say we're incrementally moving that forward. It's still not enough. We are still seeing the investment markets moving a little bit slowly.
The public support for those is moving along. New York State just had some federal money and launched Innovate New York as a $25 million fund. It's a start. I would still argue that we need to more efficiently pair the entrepreneurial talent and the industry knowledge and expertise with the money, because every dollar will be invested more efficiently if you do that. That's still a bit of a gap for us.
Q: Is it still a challenge to get investors to look at opportunities in Western New York, as opposed to other places with a more robust venture capital market?
A: We're still not the first place people look. However, because of programs like the SmartStart Venture Forum, we are getting more notice. We're starting to use more social media communications as a tool to reach people who would not have every known. We are getting some more notice. We still have a lot of work to do. None of this is easy.
Q: Is the Chinese export grant a steppingstone for other initiatives?
A:We have got to go after these funding opportunities to grow our ecosystem. We have probably five more opportunities we could go after. It's just a matter of stepping up, getting the collaborators to make it happen, and then people will recognize us. Because once you start getting these funding proposals in there people will start saying, "Oh, Buffalo. I didn't think about Buffalo. Look at all those companies they have."
It's a snowballing effect, and the medical campus has built a place where people want to invest, whether that's investors who see we have neat companies and are ready to jump in, or whether that's funders on the state and national level saying you're a community on the rise. You have a vision but you also still need our help. That's a perfect place to be.?