Report Questions Area Emphasis on Biomedical Industry

Columbus Dispatch - January 13, 2002
   

Columbus Dispatch

by Alison Grant

The biomedical industry poses tantalizing possibilities for job expansion but is overemphasized as an engine for economic growth in Northeast Ohio.

So concludes a local study that points to numbers showing that biotechnology accounts for a fraction of jobs in the region: four-tenths of 1 percent of total employment in an eight-county area that includes Cleveland, Akron and Lorain.

The report says that growth of new biomedical jobs, which spurted in the region from 1995 to 1999, slowed dramatically in the next two years. From 1999 to 2001, biomedical payroll increased 6 percent.

“The commercial biomedical industry in Northeast Ohio remains tiny, despite many years of effort to expand it,” said Zach Schiller, senior researcher at Policy Matters Ohio and author of the report. “We can’t look to biotech as the main replacement for our manufacturing industries.”

The report is not intended to slight the pursuit of biomedical business, Schiller said. But more should be noted of its limits, he said, including median rates of pay that, nationally, lag median pay in prime manufacturing jobs such as auto production.

“You have a few people who are making a lot, and a lot of people who are not making a lot,” he said.

“We should be investing broadly in the work force as a whole, in education, and trying to produce economic growth that will allow the bulk of the area’s work force to participate.”

Combined, the drug and medical-device industries in the eight counties had 97 establishments employing a total of 5,886 people as of the second quarter of 2001, according to state employment numbers cited in the report.

Schiller acknowledges that his gauge of biotech activity is conservative. His job count does not include diagnostic equipment maker Philips Medical Systems of Highland Heights, for example, which employs 7,000.

The Edison Biotechnology Center in Cleveland, using a broader measure of what constitutes a biotech job, says that by 1996 the region already had some 140 life-sciences businesses employing 16,000 people.

“It’s growing slower than we’d like to see it, but we still think there’s a lot of seeds planted over the last two years that will bear fruit,” said Paul Nickels, a spokesman for the center.

The report by Policy Matters, a liberal think-tank, found that biotech in the region masks conflicting trends.

The area’s drug research and production businesses lost jobs between 1995 and 1999, then grew substantially. The expansion of Ben Venue Laboratories Inc. of Bedford accounts for much of the surge, along with the start-up of drug developer Athersys Inc.

But in the much larger medical devices arena, the opposite occurred – peppy growth in the 1990s, then a reversal, with jobs and payroll dropping by 3 percent in 2000 and 10 percent last year.

Contact Alison Grant at:
agrant@plaind.com, 216-999-4758

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