Tech park expert has
high hopes for Kakaako

Expert speaks

Who: Bob Olson, a pioneer in the development of biotechnology parks.

What: Olson will lecture on what it takes to develop a life-sciences community, as part of the University of Hawaii College of Business's Kipapa Lecture Series.

When: Tomorrow, 5 p.m.

Where: John A. Burns School of Medicine

Further info: Call 956-5507.

Hawaii is in a good position to realize hopes that a biotechnology park could spring up around the University of Hawaii's new medical and research center in Kakaako, one of the country's top authorities on developing such parks said.

Bob Olson, who has overseen development of biotech parks in Virginia and Colorado, said Kakaako has the main ingredients to luring innovative biotech companies: the anchoring presence of a top academic research facility and proximity to a major business district.

"There is no one model that ensures success. But those are the fundamental components that drive the formation of a successful biotechnology community," said Olson, speaking from Colorado.

However, Olson, who will deliver a lecture tomorrow at the Kakaako medical facility, said Hawaii will need to add a third crucial ingredient -- top-quality research and lab space in the area.

The shortage of such space in Honolulu has been viewed as one of the main impediments to realizing the vision of state and University of Hawaii officials, who see the under-construction John A. Burns School of Medicine as serving as the magnet for biotech companies.

Olson said a "building block" approach is needed to develop a thriving biotech park, with the first two components hopefully generating sufficient demand that developers are enticed to build research space.

"The presence of good facilities is a big component. You can't start a biotech company in a garage. This is among the most costly space to build and there's not much of a profit motive for the private real estate industry to build it," Olson said.

Olson admitted that his familiarity with Kakaako was limited to "a quick drive-through" on a previous visit. But few people in the country are as knowledgeable of what it takes to establish a biotech park.

Olson oversaw planning and development for the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park and later the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority, which turned an abandoned Army medical complex outside Denver into a thriving $4.3 billion life-sciences park. Both of those projects are clustered around university medical centers.

"That academic research component has to be there," Olson said. "You can't start a biotech development without it."

Olson said Kakaako's location, just down the road from downtown Honolulu, will provide the requisite business infrastructure.

"Start-up companies need access to business specialties like marketing, corporate law and financial institutions for making public offerings and private placements," he said.

The Fitzsimons project in Colorado has become a regional hub for biotech companies, something that Olson said Hawaii should strive for by positioning itself as a Pacific center for biotechnology.

In doing so, Hawaii could turn a drawback -- its distance from West Coast venture-capital sources -- into a positive.

"Everyone plays to their own unique strengths. In Hawaii's case, there has been important new growth in the life-science industry at many points in Asia and the Pacific, and this could be a unique opportunity to be the convening location for the whole Pacific community," he said.

More than most other industries, the biotech industry thrives on constant communication between companies and research institutions, Olson said.

"This is still very much an industry dominated by the U.S., and there is emerging biotech activity in other nations that really need to relate to the U.S. for that reason. Hawaii could capitalize on that by serving as the bridge to that U.S. presence," he said.


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