Young Companies, Anchor Companies Keep Utah’s Life Science Industry Vibrant

Utah is known for many things: Its national parks and incredible landscape, the greatest snow on earth and its salty sea, to name several. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Utah is increasingly recognized for its robust life science industry.


Far from the high-tech life science centers on either coast, Utah’s life sciences industry is surprisingly vibrant, boasting more than 26,800 employees and making the state a leader for life science businesses per capita. Indeed, across the four major subsectors (medical devices and equipment; drugs and pharmaceuticals; research, testing and medical labs; and biomedical distribution) Utah has at least a 20 percent higher level of industry concentration than is found nationally for those subsectors. What’s more, each of those major subsectors is growing faster in Utah than nationally.

“Utah’s life science industry is a great contributor to our economic diversity, and its performance over the last five years is one of the reasons Utah bounced back from the economic downturn at a quicker pace than the rest of the nation,” says Jeff Edwards, President and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah (EDCUtah).

On Nov. 6 the state’s new life science association, BioUtah, will gather the life sciences community for the fourth annual Utah Life Science Summit. This will be the state’s first summit entirely under the auspices of BioUtah, says President and CEO Kimball Thomson. The summit is the premier event for Utah’s life science community and will attract about 400 leaders from industry, academia and government along with representation from about 100 companies within the state’s life science industry.

“We’ll look at the state of the life science sector in Utah, its direction and what we can do to invigorate and grow it,” Thomson says. “There will be world-class speakers from Utah and from the national and global fronts. Our focus is to inspire, educate and provide the best networking experience that can happen in the State of Utah for the life science community.”

He adds that BioUtah is committed to maximizing Utah’s place as a magnet for capital, people and companies that are going to change the world: “We see our association and annual summit as a key part of that now and in the years ahead.”

Another event, the MPO Summit, held last June at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, celebrated the diversity and concentration of Utah’s expanding medical device manufacturing sector. Medical Product Outsourcing (MPO) magazine has been holding its summits at leading medical device manufacturing hubs throughout the United States and internationally for eight years, but this was the first such event held in Utah. MPO events provide the medical device industry with comprehensive programs that address critical medical device outsourcing and manufacturing issues. MPO Summit organizers said they selected Utah to tap into the state’s innovative and growing medical device market.

“Utah has proactively supported the growth of its medical device cluster and the state’s efforts are evident in the staggering number of new companies and new employment in the industry,” said Howard Revitch, Group Publisher of Medical Product Outsourcing and Orthopedic Design & Technology magazines about selecting Utah for the MPO Summit.

Hosting events like the MPO conference certainly help Utah raise the profile of its fast-growing life science industry cluster. The events also help highlight the innovative research taking place at the University of Utah and Utah State University, which account for more than $400 million annually in research grants, and provide an opportunity for companies not familiar with Utah’s life science prowess to explore the resources here. The Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development, the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative (USTAR) and the Economic Development Corporation of Utah were supporting sponsors for the MPO Summit.

“Everything that raises the profile of Utah as a place to do meaningful medtech, like the MPO Summit and other events we will be exploring over the years, are terrific for the state and serve to remind people that Utah traditionally is a top state for medical device careers,” says Thomson. “Utah has been a compelling place to build a medical device company or a division of a medical device company since the golden age of medtech began in Utah, when pioneers like Willem J. Kolff, James LeVoy Sorenson, Dale Ballard and Homer Warner made Utah an epicenter for world-changing innovation.”

Of the more than 600 life science companies located in Utah, more than 100 are medical device companies. Thomson says Utah’s anchor medtech companies include Merit Medical, “the largest indigenous medtech company in Utah,” Bard Access Systems, a division of C.R. Bard–and one of the largest and fastest growing medtech companies in the state, Becton Dickinson, Edwards Lifesciences Corp., Fresenius, ICU Medical and GE Health Care Surgery (a major division of GE Healthcare).

The state’s manufacturers produce a host of medical devices, including MRI equipment, ultrasound equipment, pacemakers, hearing aids, ECGs, electromedical endoscopic equipment, laboratory equipment and furniture, surgical instruments, appliances and supplies. Growth of the medtech sector is supported by the University of Utah and Utah State University, which consistently spin out about a dozen new medical device companies each year combined.

Other Utah life science subsectors also show a great deal of promise. Thomson cites young pharmaceutical companies like Tolero Pharmaceuticals and MesaGen as promising and adds that Hunter Jackson, the founder of NPS Pharmaceuticals, is building a new Utah pharmaceutical company called Navigen. (Utah-based NPS Pharmaceuticals was purchased and moved to New Jersey.) Other pharmaceutical companies like Actavis (formerly Watson Pharmaceuticals) and Teva (formerly Cephalon) help anchor this subsector in Utah.

In the diagnostics arena, rapidly growing Utah companies like Lineagen and BioFire Diagnostics had their beginnings in research developed at the University of Utah. Another company, Sera Prognostics, came out of collaboration between Brigham Young University and the University of Utah.

Meanwhile, the state’s largest indigenous life science company, Myriad Genetics, along with Nelson Labs and Q Therapeutics, are other compelling homegrown life science companies.

“In addition to our terrific anchor companies, Utah has a variety of young companies that could grow up and be special,” Thomson says. “These young companies, with their innovative and sharp leadership, are adding significantly to Utah’s nice biotech, pharma and diagnostics base. Utah has a great deal of promise.”

Indeed it does. A study produced for the Utah Cluster Acceleration Partnership (UCAP) noted that Utah’s life sciences industry outpaced a growing national sector from 2001 to 2010. Employment in Utah’s life sciences industry grew by 25.8 percent during that period, which included a 9.2 percent increase in jobs from 2007 through 2010–from the economic peak in 2007 through the recession years and the first full year of the recovery (2010). Nationally, growth in life sciences employment was 8.4 percent for the same period, but essentially flat from 2007 through 2010.

Utah is the place to be for life science companies and to help sustain the growth of the industry, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) announced Tuesday the hiring of Kevin Jessing as director of the Life Science Cluster. Jessing comes to GOED after a diverse career across pharmaceutical, contract research and pharmaceutical technology industries with an emphasis in mass spectrometry and business development.

Most recently, as the head of BioInnovations Gateway (BiG), a non-profit life science incubator located within Granite Technical Institute, he used his expertise to provide high school students with hands on experience with medical device startup companies. Previous to BiG, he founded Resonance Laboratories in 2007 to address the bio-analytical and ADME needs of small pharmaceutical companies.

“We’re extremely excited to welcome Kevin to our team,” says GOED Executive Director Spencer P. Eccles. “Kevin brings a unique balance of business development skills and life science technology commercialization experience.”