This Salt Lake City industry can support ‘intergenerational cycles of thriving,’ mayor says

City hosts ‘Human Innovation Day,’ launches website to connect residents to health sciences careers.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City high school students listen to a presentation at Recursion offices in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, as part of Human Innovation Day, touring biotech companies and learning about careers that may be available.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Salt Lake City’s life-sciences industry needs to touch more lives.

That was the message behind the city’s first “Human Innovation Day,” which brought about 50 students from the city’s high schools together Thursday with some of the key players in Utah’s biotechnology industry.

Starting with tours of Recursion Pharmaceuticals and BioMerieux and ending with a stop at the BioHive Summit industry conference at the Salt Palace, the students were submersed in a world of robots and lab coats.

“I did not realize that any of these companies existed, or that they had opportunities that are so available,” said Collin Stanley, a senior at Salt Lake Center for Science Education in Rose Park.

To Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, there is an historic disconnect between the city’s biotech industry and too many of its residents.

“In Salt Lake City, we have a very real divide in access to the good things — the growth and the great jobs that are happening here, and I’m done with it. We should be totally intolerant of these divides continuing.”

She views biotech growth as “an opportunity to pivot intergenerational cycles of poverty to intergenerational cycles of thriving.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City high school students listen to a presentation at Recursion offices in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, as part of Human Innovation Day.

The students also heard from Atim Atte Enyenihi, an analytical chemist at Recursion. Born in Nigeria, she moved to the Caribbean as a child and was undereducated. But when she got to a high school in the United States, a teacher mentored her.

“It was in high school that I fell in love with chemistry,” she said. “I had a teacher who believed in me and was supportive.”

She eventually earned her doctorate in chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Ryan Kelly, chief communications officer for Recursion, said a diverse workforce is a high priority for the company. It has specific hiring goals for gender parity and underrepresented groups. “From our perspective, that’s an initiative we want to encourage at Recursion.”

The University of Utah’s Gardner Institute has produced a “blueprint” for growing the city’s health care innovation industry, which is already a national leader. The blueprint points out that Utah has a higher share of life sciences jobs (1.9%) than any other state, and it’s about twice the national average. Life sciences produces 8% of the state’s GDP.

And not all the jobs require college degrees. At BioMerieux, the students heard about positions for high school graduates, and the company also helps with education costs so they can go to college while they’re working. They also heard about lab-technician jobs and other positions that have shorter training requirements.

Mendenhall said the city last year had to amend its zoning ordinances to allow more biotech manufacturing in light-manufacturing areas.

The city wants to strengthen its biotech talent pool similar to what has happened with the software industry in the Draper/Lehi area, where startups and mature companies can draw on a critical mass of skilled workers.

“I learned about what happens with the labs, and basically how I can get into a career I’m interested in very easily,” said senior Josie Blomquist. “That was surprising to me.”

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