When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo unveiled a major genomic medicine development for Buffalo in last month’s State of the State address, the participating research institutions and companies were left scrambling for more details - especially about the number of jobs promised.
The project – which pulls together the University at Buffalo, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, several biotech companies and genomic researchers in New York City – is a public-private partnership built off the region’s strengths in supercomputing and digital medical records.
A state agency predicted the $105 million project would create 600 jobs for the region, but commitments from Computer Task Group and the other Buffalo Niagara partners add up to only 490 of the promised jobs.
UB and state officials concede that about 100 of the predicted jobs would be created by companies that haven’t formally signed on, but they insist the projections are realistic.
“I’m very confident that we’re going to be able to hit those numbers, and I very much look to move well beyond them,” said Marnie LaVigne, UB’s associate vice president for economic development.
Genomic medicine is the latest economic development initiative funded by the governor’s Buffalo Billion pledge. The high-profile announcements, accompanied by hundreds of promised jobs and millions of invested dollars, raise expectations while leaving out specifics.
In most cases, the job forecasts in the initiatives are like the financial forecasts for a startup technology company – numbers that can run the gamut from informed guesses, based on each company’s expected role in the development, to wishful thinking.
With startup tech companies, the best investors bet on good management with good ideas, not the numbers.
In economic development, especially a project intended to grow a whole new industry, the comparable question is whether officials are betting on the right companies – those that can adapt to obstacles and changing circumstances and still succeed.
“It’s not a bad strategy. A lot of devils are in the details,” said Greg LeRoy, a national expert on economic development subsidy programs and executive director of the nonprofit Good Jobs First.
Money for upgrades
The genomic medicine project is a collaborative effort leveraging UB’s supercomputer, life-sciences research by UB and Roswell Park and a vast electronic cache of patient data to spur economic development.
It follows Cuomo’s December 2012 announcement that Albany Molecular Research Inc. would open a drug-discovery facility on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and his November announcement that two clean-energy companies would move to a former brownfield site in South Buffalo.
The genomic medicine project ties researchers and five biotech companies here to a coalition of genomic medicine scientists at the New York Genome Center in Manhattan. The state will invest $55 million to the initiative in Manhattan and $50 million in Buffalo.
Empire State Development said the $50 million pledged to Buffalo includes:
• $25 million for computing infrastructure upgrades at UB’s Center for Computational Research.
• $15 million, over five years, toward commercialization efforts and research and development at UB.
• $7.5 million for laboratory resources shared by UB, the genome center and the biotech companies.
• $2.5 million for equipment upgrades to the genomics program at Roswell Park.
Where the jobs are
A close examination of the jobs touted for the genomic medicine project in Buffalo illustrates the difficulty in predicting future hiring.
Empire State Development and UB officials said the figure was based on input from the participating companies.
The main company taking part in the Buffalo portion of the project, Computer Task Group, expects to add 300 employees over five years, nearly doubling its local work force of 250 to 300, said James R. Boldt, chairman and CEO of CTG, which has about 3,800 workers worldwide.
Most would work in Buffalo in data analytics, supporting the company’s expanded work in sorting and assessing electronic medical records, Boldt said.
The new employees would earn between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, depending on their level of experience, he said.
“I know sometimes there’s skepticism about people committing to so many jobs,” Boldt said. “You know I’d love to say I’m 100 percent confident, but this is business.”
The next largest group of promised jobs is the 50 workers who would be based at a new American research and manufacturing center for AESKU Diagnostics, a German company that develops tests and instruments to help in diagnosing autoimmune diseases.
Lineagen, a Utah company that performs genetic evaluations of children who have displayed clinical symptoms of autism and other forms of delayed development, has promised to hire 10 employees for an office in Buffalo.
Another project participant, Personalized Medicine Pathways, is a proposed partnership between Roswell Park and CTG that hasn’t yet been established. Roswell Park said the prospective company expects to create 15 jobs through the genomic medicine project.
And UB expects to hire 35 workers to support the supercomputer expansion, to aid in analysis of electronic medical records and to boost efforts to commercialize faculty research, LaVigne said.
The region’s commercial scientific sector has see high job creation estimates before. Empire Genomics, a life-sciences company founded in 2006 that grew out of research conducted at Roswell Park, is taking part in the genomics effort. The company, with 12 to 15 employees now, predicted seven years ago that it would hire 60 employees over five years in a major growth spurt.
By November 2012, when Empire Genomics employed 12 people, the company held a news conference to announce the development of a test meant to find the best treatment for multiple myeloma, a blood-based cancer, and new plans to hire 50 over five years.
Anthony Johnson, the president and CEO, said he couldn’t reveal a jobs figure for the genomic medicine initiative because its hiring depends on how deeply the company is involved in the project and on how much of the state funding it will use.
“It’s all in flux,” Johnson said in an interview.
However, the state told The News that Empire Genomics has committed to hiring 80 people for its portion of the genomic medicine project.
That brings the projected jobs from the committed project participants to 490, over five years, a figure based on how many employees the companies anticipate needing to fully take advantage of the project resources, UB’s LaVigne said.
UB and Empire State Development now say the project is expected to create 500 to 600 jobs in its first five years, with about 100 jobs coming from a dozen companies that are negotiating to join the project.
In fact, Empire State Development now says the genomic medicine project could create as many as 2,000 jobs here in the long term.
The downstate genome center, for its part, expects to create 500 jobs through its participation in the project in the short term, and up to 2,500 jobs over the course of the project.
It’s likely that, when the community looks back at this project, some companies will have outperformed expectations and some will have underperformed, said Howard Zemsky, a Cuomo adviser and co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council.
“We would never want to put all of our eggs into one basket, or one company,” Zemsky said.
It’s good to see the region potentially adding well-paying jobs in the high-tech sector, said Jennifer Diagostino, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Justice in Buffalo, but it’s appropriate to scrutinize this and other economic-development initiatives.
“There’s a lot of hullabaloo when the announcement is first made. I’m sure there will be a lot of hullabaloo when the ribbon-cutting happens. But we need to make sure that we’re also keeping an eye on whether the promises for the number of jobs to come from this huge investment are actually kept,” she said.