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Local experts hope to attract more biotech companies to North Dakota through collaboration, incentives

Incentive programs can help attract biotechnology companies to the state, but a more collaborative environment, perhaps with North Dakota research universities, may be needed.

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Colin Combs, with UND's School of Medicine and Health Sceinces, left, Rep. Emily O'Brien-R, Grand Forks, and Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the East Grand Forks/Grand Forks Chamber, discuss the state landscape for biotech companies.
Adam Kurtz / Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS – North Dakota doesn’t exactly compare to East or West coast states when it comes to attracting biotechnology companies, but there are opportunities to thrive for those companies that either relocate to the state or are formed within it, local experts say.

At the state level there are incentive programs — grants and loans — that can be used to attract biotechnology companies to North Dakota, and millions of dollars have flowed out from those programs over the years. Experts say the state also has a favorable regulatory environment that economic developers can use when speaking with a company looking to relocate.

“We're trying to convince people, and we're doing a pretty good job of trying to convince people, this is a good place to start a business,” said Richard Glynn, executive director of the Bioscience Association of North Dakota, or BioND.

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On Wednesday, March 23, Glynn addressed a crowd of about 100 business and academic leaders, economic developers and state officials at a CEO roundtable event held at Minnkota Power Cooperative. The conference featured panel discussions from state lawmakers, business representatives and a UND biomedical researcher.

BioND is located at UND’s Center for Innovation. It was formed in 2010 to develop bio-based ventures in the state. Glynn spends his time scouting for companies, oftentimes start-up enterprises, on why they should come to North Dakota.

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One of those companies is Lincoln Therapeutics, which relocated to Fargo from Chicago. The company is working on developing a non-addictive analgesic that can be used by U.S. soldiers on battlefields, which would replace opium-based painkillers. As a veteran, Glynn is excited about what the start-up could achieve.

“That's the worst part of being wounded,” he told the Herald. “When you're wounded, the first thing they do is slap you up with opioids. They don't want you in pain. They can't treat you if you're in pain.”

Glynn uses corporate tax rates, a lower state gasoline tax and programs such as the state Department of Agriculture’s Bioscience Innovation Grant Program, and the Commerce Department’s North Dakota Development fund, to get company leaders interested in the state. Of the former, Glynn said he has helped companies secure about $11 million in state support.

Glynn said he has helped about seven companies relocate to the state, and he’s in ongoing talks with a similar number.

But Glynn doesn’t do it alone. Though BioND is a small entity — he works there with Rep. Emily O’Brien, R-Grand Forks, who also spoke at the roundtable — he turns to UND researchers when he needs help in vetting proposals. Asking the state for money is a serious business, and companies need to be able to demonstrate they have actionable ideas.

Kouhyar Tavakolian, a professor of biomedical engineering at UND, helps determine if a start-up has an action plan that can be commercialized, and be eligible for state funding. Along with Glynn, he’s working with a pair of companies that could relocate to the state, including a business that has a wearable health monitor, which can analyze results on the spot. Another prospect is a company that is developing a mouth swab that people can use to see what vitamins they are lacking, or what kind of exercise they need to do.

Getting these companies to relocate is a collaborative effort, and as an educator, Tavakolian plays a role that goes beyond talking to companies and vetting their proposals.

“We are trying to create the workforce that is needed by those companies,” he said.

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Colin Combs, chair of the department of biomedical sciences at UND’s School of Medicine and Health Science, said collaboration is key. A fledgling biotech company can tap into the expertise of SMHS researchers, while letting the business work on commercialization of its product. It’s possible for the necessary research to be funded by federal grant programs that are available to support collaborations between the academic and private sectors.

“That’s the way to do it,” Combs said, who previously noted his department is No. 2 biomedical sciences department in the nation, in research funding from the National Institutes of Health.

O’Brien said the average salary for a person working in the bioscience sector is about $74,000. There are more than 570 such enterprises in the state, which generate more than $292 million paid to those workers. Still, that average salary is lower than what is paid elsewhere in the nation, but she said work being done to develop the industry is “paving the path” for those companies.

O’Brien said there are several tax incentives for companies looking to do research and development in the state, but a bill that would have exempted a portion of taxes those companies pay was defeated in the last legislative session by two votes.

When asked if a similar bill would be introduced at the next session, she said: “I hope so.”

Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the East Grand Forks/Grand Forks Chamber moderated the panel Combs and O’Brien spoke on. He speculated that the Legislature could take on a more conservative look after the general election in November. Should that happen, companies in the bioscience and biotech industries will need to focus on commercialization, when they seek state funding.

“(Legislators) are going to want to be able to touch and feel what comes out of those results,” he said.

Adam Kurtz is the community editor for the Grand Forks Herald. He covers higher education and other topics in Grand Forks County and the city.

Kurtz joined the Herald in July 2019. He covered business and county government topics before covering higher education and some military topics.

Tips and story ideas are welcome. Get in touch with him at akurtz@gfherald.com, or DM at @ByAdamKurtz.

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