Innovation and Discovery at the Phoenix Bioscience Core

by Taylor Costello
Business Development Community Phoenix Community Alliance Taylor Costello February 1, 2022

Downtown Phoenix is evolving, that much is true.

The way David Krietor sees it, the area will transform into a fundamentally more connected, yet a more global community as time goes on.

“It’s going to be much more dense, much more connected to a large group of new employers,” said David Krietor, the executive director of the Phoenix Bioscience Core. “The whole vibrancy of the whole area will continue to improve.”

Krietor isn’t referring to one tall building or residential development being the catalyst for growth in the community. Instead, the area will roughly follow the model of what is called an “innovation district.” Such a place blends residential housing, with existing nearby universities to accommodate and house private industry and entrepreneurs.

Some things will remain constant, like the nearby art scenes on Roosevelt Row, but the makeup will shift into a place where artisans, residents, professionals, students and entrepreneurs in the research and medical community occupy the same dense area.

This isn’t conjecture on his part but more of an accepted understanding of developing local trends unfolding over several decades.

The Phoenix Bioscience Core is a collection of Arizona’s three major universities — Arizona State University (ASU), University of Arizona (UArizona) and Northern Arizona University (NAU) — three of the five major hospital systems, and a mixture of public and private research all clustered under the same umbrella of real estate between Roosevelt Row in the Evans Churchill neighborhood and Downtown.

Downtown Phoenix has seen explosive growth in the last decade, progress marked by outstretched cranes, construction, new cultural items, mainstays and generally, areas that are more walkable. More than a decade of investment by the City of Phoenix, public universities and private commercial and residential developments has made the paradigm shift possible.

But to new visitors and residents to the area, this density only occurred in the last decade or so — it wasn’t always like this.

The Past

The City of Phoenix had a 28-acre sized problem.

It owned an mostly undeveloped stretch of land, roughly bordering Fourth Street to Seventh Street from west to east, and Garfield Street to Monroe Street from north to south.

The rough boundaries of the eventual Phoenix Bioscience Core, as seen in aerial views from 2001. (Courtesy of the City of Phoenix)

Two things landed the city in this position: the PBC site was once planned as a site to expand the convention center, envisioned as a separate expo center, while the Arizona Cardinals passed on the northern portion of the land and moved to Glendale. Phoenix Community Alliance and the Downtown Phoenix Partnership initially acquired the land options and then assigned them to the city after the deal fell through.

But eventually both of those ideas were scuttled when a better solution presented itself.

In the not-to-distant past, Phoenix was the only major city in the U.S. without a four-year medical school. For local medical students trying to earn the equivalent of that education, the solution was patchwork. A large number of UArizona medical students traveled to Phoenix from Tucson. The research community was established but similarly scattered in the wind.

“Something’s wrong here, we had a shortage of physicians,” said Rick Naimark, former deputy city manager. “We had residencies [in Phoenix] and a ton of University of Arizona students came up and did rotations because there weren’t enough hospitals and opportunities in Tucson.”

An illustrated overlay of the finished buildings on the Phoenix Bioscience Core, with 850 PBC representing the most recent constructed structure, finished in 2021. (Photo Courtesy of Wexford Science + Technology)

Culturally, there was somewhat of a deficit too. Art communities around Downtown sprouted up in the early 1980s. New skyscrapers went up to position the city for the future. At the start of the new millennium, the city had a convention center, baseball field and arena, but a noticeable absence of people during times without conventions or sporting events.

There was no reason to stay Downtown after hours to play.

Yet, there were shifts in the makeup of the city that worked in favor for a biomedical core. First, the advocacy for a local light rail line, which was a stretch of track connecting Phoenix to Mesa. At first, a controversial topic, the train harnessed the power to connect neighboring municipalities cities in the Metropolitan Phoenix area and bring further economic investment to a depressed area.

And lastly, in the mid-2000s, the universities made a foothold Downtown, with ASU placing its journalism, nursing and several other programs in the heart of the city. There would be a support system for the fledging biomedical core.

No single person can be credited with creating the emerging educational infrastructure, as it exists now. Naimark says this can be broadly attributed to these independent, yet converging elements.

“There was a lot of community consensus that drove a lot of this stuff,” Naimark said.

The first rumblings of what would become the PBC began with the announcement of Downtown Phoenix as the headquarters of Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen, in 2002. The city pledged funds that eventually built the research group’s permanent physical site, designed by the Phoenix office of SmithGroup, at Fifth and Van Buren streets, across from Arizona Center.

The headquarters of TGen, as it appeared in 2009. President Jeff Trent is a University of Arizona graduate and was the former scientific director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health before returning to the state. (Courtesy of the Downtown Phoenix Archives.)

At the time, building such infrastructure, where little to none preexisted, carried with it a sense of skepticism to outside observers. For instance, the headline of a contemporary New York Times article led with it being an “ambitious, if risky, strategy.” When TGen opened its headquarters in spring 2005, Phoenix wasn’t even ranked as a state with a thriving biotechnology market.

“It was part of an effort to create a sense of life, activity and engagement in Downtown as opposed to folks who were visiting and driving back to their suburban location, which was typical of the labor force,” Krietor said.

A few years into the repositioning, the city had already raised $100 million in a mixture of public and private funding, including from the Flinn Foundation.

The initial class of University of Arizona’s College of Medicine-Phoenix students were taught in the historic Phoenix Union High School buildings, as their own Health Sciences Building was built, starting in 2010. (Photo by Bill Timmerman)

Eventually, a coalition developed between the city, the Arizona Board of Regents and the universities to expand medical education and research to the area, with the board bringing UArizona’s medical school to Downtown as the first major step.

In December 2004, the City Council formally adopted a decade-long roadmap of the vision of Phoenix called “A Strategic Vision and Blueprint for the Future,” the first of many deliberate actions to spur economic development.

An inaugural class of 24 UArizona medical students arrived to study in the historic former Phoenix Union High School buildings in 2007, located between Seventh and Van Buren streets, and left four years later as doctors. A decade later, that overall number of total medical students grew to 346.

In fall 2010, UArizona’s College of Medicine — Phoenix, the second core anchor, broke ground on the Health Sciences Education Building, a massive 264,000-square-foot facility.

The eventual Health Sciences Building, designed by CO Architects, completed in 2012. (Photo by Bill Timmerman)

Every few years, another pivotal partner was brought into the fold: In 2015, Banner Health partnered with UArizona to create a 30-year academic affiliation agreement with the colleges of medicine in both Tucson and Phoenix, an investment worth $1.2 billion for the two cities. In subsequent years, whatever remaining health science gaps were filled with the arrivals of other institutions and educational systems, like Northern Arizona University, Creighton University and the Department of Veteran Affairs.

A literal health science desert transformed into an oasis.

But, believe it or not, the Phoenix Bioscience Core still hasn’t closed out on its masterplan.

The Present

The current stage of development and focus is reflected by 850 PBC, a flexible space for research, office space and retail alike, designed by HKS Architects. For its research function, the building comes equipped with wet and dry lab space.

ASU subleased a portion of the city-owned land that eventually became 850 PBC to Wexford Science and Technology, a Maryland-based real estate company that focuses on developing universities, academic medical centers and research institutions.

Within the building, Wexford is positioning itself for the next generation of private companies, who come to them directly to incubate within an ecosystem of labs.

Opened in March 2021, the 227,000-square-foot 850 PBC building, located at the southwest corner of Garfield and Fifth streets, acts as the first structure under the five-building masterplan.

After the initial opening last spring, 35,000 square feet of lab space called the “Wexford Innovation Labs” quickly became 60% preleased within a few months. ASU also leases half of 850 PBC for its research activity and entrepreneurship support. It’s designed for the small and scrappy startups not at the stage of ten millions of dollar of funding and leased lab space.

Wexford Science and Technology has embraced the community element of their front patio design by HKS Architects, with coffee carts and live acts playing at First Fridays being example of the community activation. (Photos by Danny Upshaw)

Wexford sits on the northern end of where pedestrians converge on Roosevelt Row for First Fridays. In the last decade, residential developments have slowly filled in the privately-owned land around the PBC. Since its opening, the front patio has been used for a variety of functions, from private events, to coffee bars and live music. It’s part of a larger, concerted effort to engage with the community around them.

“When we were working with Wexford at the very beginning that was one of the things they really wanted, was to be close to the arts district because there’s a lot of great synergy that happens between the creative minds and the sciences,” said Claudia Whitehead, the bioscience healthcare program manager at the City of Phoenix. “They’re very cognizant to partner with the community and invite people in.”

Presently, empty city lots represent placeholders for the buildings soon to be constructed under the Phoenix Bioscience Core masterplan. A tall Clayco crane from a nearby construction site points south to where the remaining university research buildings will be erected. This process will occur over the next 15 years, according to Whitehead.

The Future

One of the PBC’s exciting recent developments is the arrival of OncoMyx Therapeutics, a company, which true to its name, is developing an immunotherapy modified from an oncolytic virus that stimulates the immune system to target cancers.

The oncolytic virus, myxoma, is a type of virus widespread in the environment that can only infect specific breeds of rabbit, and otherwise is harmless. When researchers introduced it into laboratory animals infected with cancerous cells, it killed these growths. Moreover, the virus was found to be unharmful to humans and animals because it has never been able to cause disease in any organism outside of rabbits.

With local roots at ASU Tempe, Mayo Clinic and SkySong, the innovation immunotherapy attracted $25 million in initial private funding, including from Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund, the funding arm of one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

The first stage of funding dictated what cancerous formations the oncolytic virus should attack, in this case gastrointestinal, blood cancers and tumors. The second round of $50 million in private funding is going toward human trials by 2023, according to Dr. Steve Potts, the CEO and cofounder of OncoMyx.

“One thing we ask ourselves in the pre-clinical stage is, ‘What cancers can we go after? Should we think about lung cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer, blood cancers?” Potts explained. “And that is an important question because if you pick a cancer that doesn’t have a lot of responses, it hinders your work. So you try your best to look at the experiment and that’s tricky in immunotherapy because the immune system is so complex.”

As soon as 850 PBC was open for business, OncoMyx became one of the first tenants in the building. A handful of local and remote employees have the mobility to travel from airport to boardroom in about 10 minutes, working in a state-of-the-art biological lab with active collaboration with key local partners.

“What we’re definitely showing is that you can build a world-class biotech company outside the three big hubs and be successful,” Potts said.

The seven private companies in the 850 PBC — four of which are spinoffs from either ASU or UArizona — are companies on the cutting edge of tomorrow’s research and therapies.  A company called ElectraTect is developing tools to measure marijuana consumption, while Calviri is a cancer vaccine company using errors in the body’s own immune response to respond to cancer. BacVax, a company incubated at the nearby College of Medicine, develops vaccines against bacterial infections in the building.

850 PBC has made local engagement with the arts a centerpiece of their community outreach. For instance, the mural in the lobby was created by local muralist Kayla Newnam. (Photo by Taylor Costello)

There’s a name for this type of industry and it’s called “translational research,” where the end result of innovation is therapies, pharmaceuticals or devices that can operate in the real world. However, as logical as that seems as an end goal, Krietor says that was never an explicitly-stated intent.

“The PBC was never envisioned as a place where these companies would aggregate and grow. Five years from now, there will be 20 to 30 companies — some of them fairly significant,” Krietor said. “It’s going to create a very high-end employment base for Downtown that we’ve never really had in the sciences.”

But that innovation is already paying dividends in the way of a steadily growing employment base, which is estimated to bring in $3.1 billion in revenue for the state by 2025. A city that once had no bioscience market footprint is now ranked #5 in emerging life sciences markets and ranked #1 for life science jobs.

Phoenix was late to the table in gaining a robust biomedical community, but ironically enough, it’s better positioned than similar cities it once trailed.

“If you go around the nation and look at the other bioscience parks like this, some of them are still struggling to get housing, the arts, or hotels around them. We have all of that already,” Naimark said. “Now we’re building the jobs, the research and the higher education.”

Not bad for what was once a big dirt lot.