Local Life Sciences Bolster Fort Worth Economy While Solving Global Medical Challenges

By Bill Thornton
President and Chief Executive
Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce

When you read about Fort Worth’s economic development achievements, it’s probably in the context of the relocation or expansion of an aviation company, manufacturer or logistics provider. However, over the course of many decades, Fort Worth also has established a dynamic life sciences community to meet the city’s health care needs and foster medical innovations that will solve our world’s most critical life science challenges. This sector continues to generate a great deal of business opportunities for our city and for the region.

North Texas’ health care infrastructure comprises more than 450 biomedical companies and more than 1,100 research, development and testing laboratories. It is estimated that about 222,700 North Texas residents are employed in the life sciences industry, making the industry a substantial job generator.

The same is true on a statewide level, with roughly 3,900 life sciences firms located in Texas. Last year, Texas ranked third nationally for the number of clinical trials, with approximately 20,400 studies underway, according to the National Institute of Health.

In particular, Fort Worth benefits from the presence of numerous pharmaceutical companies. One of the earliest pharmaceutical companies to establish its local footprint is Alcon Laboratories, a division of Novartis that specializes in the development of medical eye care products. Alcon was founded in 1945 as a small pharmacy in Fort Worth and was named for its founders, pharmacists Robert Alexander and William Conner. The company was purchased by Nestlé in 1977 and has since expanded its product line and its outreach. Today, Alcon has operations in 75 countries, and its products are sold in 180 countries. The company’s U.S. headquarters remains in Fort Worth, and it has continued to expand its footprint.

Galderma is another global pharmaceutical company with a long history in Fort Worth. The company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Nestlé that specializes in the research, development and marketing of dermatological treatments. Its products are used to treat conditions such as acne, rosacea, psoriasis and other steroid-responsive dermatoses, fungal nail infections, pigmentary disorders, skin cancer and skin senescence.

In October 2015, Galderma selected Fort Worth for a $22 million expansion of its operations that will be supported by a $2.052 million grant from the Texas Enterprise Fund. The project includes construction of a 100,000-square-foot building that will house Galderma’s training, marketing, sales and regulatory affairs divisions. The expansion will create at least 350 new jobs, which will double the company’s employee base in Fort Worth.

Medical device companies also have a significant impact on the state and local economy. In excess of $1.3 billion in venture capital was invested in 161 biotech and medical device ventures in Texas between 2008 and 2013.

Additionally, an estimated 700 firms employ approximately 15,400 highly skilled workers in this sector, making Texas one of the top 10 states in the nation for its medical device labor force. In Fort Worth, this sector is represented by companies such as Medtronic Powered Surgical Solutions, a global manufacturer of surgical tools, and Ferris Manufacturing, a manufacturer of wound care products.

Other area players in this space are Avcor Health Care, product developer and manufacturer of elastic, cohesive compression dressings and bandages; Smith & Nephew, recognized global experts across the full spectrum of wound care solutions and joint replacement systems; Medco Health Solutions, pharmaceutical consultants; Sovereign Pharmaceutical, which specializes in wholesale pharmaceutical products; US Oncology, industry leading cancer research and treatment center; and Virbac Corp., manufacturer of veterinary equipment and medicine.

The education and training of life sciences professionals in Texas and North Texas further reinforce the economic impact of this industry sector. In 2014 alone, Texas public institutions of higher education spent nearly $2.5 billion on medical and life sciences research, accounting for more than 56 percent of all higher education research and development expenditures in the state.

Locally, the University of North Texas (UNT) Health Science Center in Fort Worth is a major driver and collaborator in medical research and cutting-edge technologies that are gaining ground in the fight against diseases. For instance, the UNT Health Science Center is partnering with a statewide consortium to identify genes and biomarkers associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

As well, the UNT Health Science Center has established an Institute of Applied Genetics, in partnership with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the University of Granada in Spain, to create a worldwide database to help reunite missing children with their parents. The UNT Health Science Center is also home to the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, one of the nation’s leading medical schools for training physicians in comprehensive primary care and rural medicine.

A recent partnership established between Texas Christian University and the UNT Health Science Center to offer an M.D. program is another example of how Fort Worth is preparing the next generation of life sciences professionals. The first class will matriculate in 2018.

In addition to supporting educational and training programs to prepare future generations for careers in the life sciences and facilitation of research and development programs, Fort Worth is also taking steps to support life sciences entrepreneurs. Regional initiatives such as TECH Fort Worth provide resources to emerging biotech companies during the startup phase.

While many industries will experience ebbs and flows, ongoing efforts to maintain and improve the quality of human life means there will always be a critical focus on life sciences. From nursing and medical staff at local hospitals and clinics, to researchers and developers at pharmaceutical and medical device companies, the life sciences community will remain a strong local economic driver.

Bill Thornton is president of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber provides an economic development update in each issue of FW Inc.