Magic fairy dust couldn’t have presented a more ideal scenario for the University of Arizona to make a major league stand in the realm of developing drugs.
A former world-class laboratory stood empty and unwanted in Oro Valley, and two international drug development companies do their work within feet of each other two miles up Oracle Road.
In June the University of Arizona snatched up the former sanofi-aventis laboratory on Hanley Road and roughly 4.6 acres for a song – $3.05 million, pretty much the value of the land and an empty shell minus any of the remaining lab infrastructure, such as air handlers and exhaust hoods.
“We bought a building that is incredibly well outfitted for the work we will put there,” said Leslie Tolbert, UA vice president of research, graduate studies and economic development. “This building has more hoods than I’ve ever seen. What’s embedded is incredible.”
Since June, upper echelon UA administrators have had quickly evolving visions on what role the building itself will play and how its function would serve a broad array of far-reaching university ambitions.
The drug development program in Oro Valley will concentrate the UA’s collaborative drug research efforts there. The College of Pharmacy and Arizona Cancer Center will be prime tenants and the College of Science is looking to hire a medicinal chemistry scientist to station there. The Critical Path Institute, whose mission is to get safer drugs to the market faster, may get space there, as well as the Translational Genomics Research Institution.
“This will be a very focused effort on drug development,” Tolbert said. “We do aspects of this in different quarters.”
Along with UA research, the 27,464-square-foot Oro Valley facility will have space set aside as a business incubator for entrepreneurs launching drug development companies. That will serve as a test bed as UA Provost Meridith Hay reorganizes the technology transfer and commercialization function and moves the office to the University of Arizona Foundation.
A primary desire is to strengthen relations and collaborate with a pair of Top 10 pharmaceutical companies with their local labs at Innovation Park, two miles north of sanofi’s former quarters – the relocated sanofi-aventis Tucson Research Center and Ventana Medical Systems, a member of the Roche Group.
Many details are still being worked out, but Tolbert hopes to move the first scientists in by the end of September.
The overarching goal is to strengthen the biosciences sector toward the powerhouse bio centers in Boston and San Diego.
“We’re trying to fill a gap that has existed in the health sciences area in basic science and application in the clinic,” Tolbert said. “We have people that are very good at that, but it’s not a general part of the culture that it needs to be.
“We want to use this as a model to help leap forward in the biomedical area as other cities have done.”
In the two months following the purchase, it was decided to put the sanofi property under oversight of the UA BIO5 Institute, a collaborative research entity bringing together scientists from the colleges of medicine, agriculture, science, engineering and pharmacy (the five in BIO5).
The collaborative drug development ambitions in Oro Valley could not fit BIO5 more snuggly than a rubber glove on a bioscientist’s hand. BIO5 Director Fernando Martinez is ecstatic about this summer Christmas gift from his VP of Research.
“It’s almost as if it was created to facilitate what we’re trying to do. They are going to insert squarely in what we do,” said Martinez, acknowledging that BIO5 so far has been no more than about BIO4.2. “We had a very limited pharmacy activity. This completes our pharmacy part at a level we want.”
The property came full circle for the University of Arizona. A group of UA scientists launched a company at this location in 1990 called Selectide, a spin-off of UA research that found a way to create a massive amount of molecular compounds. Through the later 1990s and into the 2000s, Selectide went through a series of acquisitions and mergers that ultimately became a research arm of global pharmaceutical giant sanofi-aventis.
The university did not have its sights on the vacated sanofi property until Bob Davis, an industrial real estate specialist at Grubb & Ellis, insisted that senior leaders head up to Oro Valley and take a look. Davis credits Shaun Kirkpatrick, CEO at Research Corporation Technologies, and Jeffrey Jacob, CEO at Cancer Prevention Pharmaceuticals, with suggesting he pitch the sanofi-aventis property to the UA.
Davis had gotten quite familiar with UA research in the past 20 years as he introduced the university to the IBM plant that is now the UA Science and Technology Park; found a home for the Phoenix Mars Mission Operations Center; put Biosphere 2 in the UA’s hands, and today represents Innovation Park in Oro Valley, the new home of sanofi-aventis and Ventana Medical Systems.
Davis also recognized the UA’s lab needs. “I just put those ideas together,” Davis said. “I recognized the lab equipment in there was valuable.”
He wrote the UA’s offer to buy the sanofi property and started the contract negotiations.