See how Salt Lake City aims to boost biotech and lure better-paying jobs

Mayor Erin Mendenhall unveils a blueprint for capitalizing on Utah’s surging life sciences sector.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Recursion Pharmaceuticals employee Vlad Rodic cultures tissue samples in the company lab, Oct. 31, 2018. Recursion Pharmaceuticals, a biotechnology company, has opened a headquarters in Salt Lake City at The Gateway.

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Salt Lake City is launching a concerted push to build and promote the growing biotechnology and life sciences sectors of its economy, with an emphasis on partnering with area schools and universities.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall has released a blueprint intended to boost health care innovation, investment and employment — motivated in part, she said, by wanting to create better-paying jobs for disadvantaged residents.

The plan centers on framing and promoting Utah’s health innovation sector — which already boasts nearly 1,100 companies — as a global brand anchored in the capital, akin to the approach that helped foster Silicon Slopes, the moniker for the state’s thriving tech community.

The health innovation blueprint also aims to lure private capital investment to the city and connect residents with education opportunities leading to higher-paying jobs in the sector. City Hall also wants to eliminate zoning and other barriers to companies as they seek laboratory and office space to relocate or expand.

“The beauty of it is that you are already here in a lot of ways,” Mendenhall told a recent gathering of health innovation executives to unveil the new plan. “Health care innovation, digital technology and all that goes into this industry already have deep roots in Salt Lake City.”

The new vision and action plan dovetails with “Tech Lake City,” a 2-year-old campaign to promote the city’s tech culture as part of economic development strategies and to build a pipeline of new startup businesses in both tech and life sciences.

In discussion since April, the health innovation blueprint keys off dramatic growth over a decade that has already given Utah the highest concentration of life sciences jobs in the country. In 2020, the state climbed to the top among all states for employment in the category, with 1.9% of all jobs drawn from the sector, double the national average.

Life sciences now represent about 8% of Utah’s gross domestic product, or about 30,000 jobs in Salt Lake County alone, according to researchers at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Solidified by the U.’s longtime medical focus, the Beehive State is one of four states with multiple major industry concentrations related to health care, including pharmaceuticals, medical devices, research and testing, and medical laboratory facilities.

According to Katelin Roberts, executive director of BioHive, a trade association for the sector, its growth in Utah represents not only economic opportunity for residents but also a series of dramatic stories of developing medical advances in the fight against disease.

“This blueprint will spur innovation in health care,” said Roberts, who praised Salt Lake City-based drug research and manufacturing companies such as Denali Therapeutics and Recursion Pharmaceuticals for “working as fast as they can to find new cures.”

Mendenhall said the city’s blueprint will “have massive impacts on global health and well-being as a result of the progress we’ve made and the innovations to come.”

The new public-private collaboration was announced publicly at INDUSTRY SLC, an office and residential redevelopment site in the Granary District that illustrates the presence these biotech firms now represent on the western edge of downtown.

Recursion Pharmaceuticals, a clinical-stage biotech firm, moved its headquarters from the U.’s Research Park to The Gateway shopping and entertainment district just west of downtown in 2018 and has since doubled its space there, with plans to expand more now at INDUSTRY SLC.

Though based in the Bay Area, Denali Therapeutics, which focuses on neurodegenerative diseases, is building out its own research and development center at INDUSTRY, expected to create nearly 100 well-paying jobs in the next decade. Denali CEO Ryan Watts said the city gave it “access to local talent and expertise in the life sciences” as it expands into the new biologics manufacturing facility.

Developers behind INDUSTRY began converting the coworking and office space in 2019 from an early 20th-century foundry located in the Granary District, in the shadow of Interstate 15. Jason Winkler, its co-founder, said INDUSTRY was now devoting an entire phase of new office space construction to meeting the needs of biotech firms.

The new blueprint also has avid backing from several City Council members, based on the notion that health innovation jobs tend to pay higher-than-average wages and are more resilient in economic downturns. It emphasizes partnerships with industry, Salt Lake City School District, STEM programs and area colleges and universities to align training programs with what biotech employers need.

“This is a competitive advantage in our state, and it could be a game changer for the west side,” said newly elected District 2 Councilman Alejandro Puy, who represents areas like Poplar Grove and Glendale. “But there are a lot of barriers, language being one of them, but also knowing that the resources are out there.”

Mendenhall said the blueprint’s long-term goals include improving social mobility for all residents. The plan calls for, among other things, developing a new opportunity index to better measure how economic benefits are spread among residents.

“This is how we take those shared values,” the mayor said, “and put them into action.”