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Biotech shouldn't be just the latest hot investment

Editor's note: Al Lewis, business columnist of the Denver Post, recently offered his readers this skeptical view of the biotech mania and Florida's big-money commitment to it.

DENVER _ First we blew an Internet bubble. Then we blew a telecommunications bubble. Now we are blowing a biotechnology bubble.

Smell the hype in almost every state. Economic development officials are certifiably mad.

St. Louis calls itself the Biobelt. Indiana has its BioCrossroads. And Michigan has its billion-dollar Life Sciences Corridor.

Even on the desert floors of Phoenix three public universities tout an ambitious project called the Arizona Biomedical Collaboration.

And these are just some of the wannabes.

In Florida, state and local governments pledged about $510-million to the Scripps Research Institute to build a major research center in Palm Beach _ where there is little other biotech, but plenty of aging biomass.

This is one of the most expensive government giveaways ever. In its first seven years, the new center will employ 545 people with an average salary of $58,000. So the package costs a mind-bending $936,000 per job if you do the math this way.

Of course, the officials who are dumping the public's money like toxic waste do the math another way. They say the center will grow to 6,500 jobs in 15 years and result in another 42,000 jobs in the biotech cluster to follow. The debate as to whether they are right will rage on.

This is the arena in which Colorado competes as it develops its biotech strategy centered around the $4.3-billion Fitzsimons campus. (The site of a former Air Force base in Aurora, Colo., bordering Denver, has been turned into a biotech campus that counts 18 biotech startups as tenants. By 2007, the campus will include the University of Colorado Hospital, Children's Hospital and the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.)

Fortunately, folks here aren't quite as insane, and most of the money for Fitzsimons comes from the private end of the public-private deal. Even our local economic officials speak sensibly about biotech: "A lot of people are going to throw a lot of money at a lot of really bad ideas," says economic development ace Tom Clark of the Metro Denver Network.

And yet Denver still is vying for a prize that has been long held by the East and West coasts, home of the world's leading scientists and venture capitalists.

But once the scent of hot IPOs hits the air, momentum investors and market manipulators will follow. Many of the companies will fail. Many of the investors will go bust. And many of the jobs will be lost.

It's a foolish game, but so far Colorado appears to be playing it wisely, playing to strengths within its public universities.

If we really are going to play the biotech game, perhaps we should not think of it as economic development. And maybe we should not think of biotech as the next hot investment sector, either. "It should not be about the money," said Ivor Royston, a San Diego venture capitalist and BioWest panelist. "It should be about curing disease and easing human suffering."

In the frothy, new biotech sector, that may be the most sensible statement anyone has made.