Nixon backs plan for biotechnology incentive fund


OSAGE BEACH, Mo. (AP) — Gov. Jay Nixon embraced a proposal Tuesday to direct tens of millions of tax dollars to Missouri’s biotechnology industry to keep pace with other states competing for the high-tech jobs.

The plan would divert an annual portion of the new tax revenues generated by biotechnology companies to a special state fund, from which incentives could be doled out to new or expanding entrepreneurs in the same field.

Kansas adopted a similar incentive model five years ago to lure agricultural and biological firms and researchers. The Kansas Bioscience Authority estimates its funding will top $580 million over 15 years. And the state recently won an intense competition for a new $450 million national biodefense laboratory.

Missouri already is home to some top university and private-sector researchers in the life sciences. But economic development officials say Missouri is lagging when it comes to converting that research into commercial ventures.

Nixon used a life sciences summit of the Missouri Biotechnology Association to announce his support for legislation creating a biotechnology incentive fund. Some Republican legislative leaders also are backing the plan.

“We need a new science and technology revolution in the Show-Me State,” Nixon told about 120 academic, corporate and economic development representatives at the Lake of the Ozarks conference. “With this funding source behind it, it’s my belief we can get to it.”

Earlier this year, members of the Missouri House and Senate failed to vote on similar legislation, dubbed the Missouri Science and Innovation Reinvestment Act. The next regular legislative session starts Jan. 6.

Some of the details of the 2010 plan remain sketchy. Nixon, for example, said the state could tap an unspecified percentage of the growth in income, sales or property taxes attributable to companies in the biotechnology sector. But Kelly Gillespie, executive director of the Missouri Biotechnology Association, said the plan most likely would target only the growth of individual state income taxes attributable to the sector.

Instead of remaining in general state revenues, which finance everything from schools to prisons, the money would be earmarked by lawmakers to a special state fund. It then would be distributed by the Missouri Technology Corp. or by an independent board in the form of grants or forgivable loans.

Several ideas have been proposed about how to use the money. They include aiding startup biotechnology companies, providing infrastructure to lure existing out-of-state firms, and subsidizing college-based training for the employees of biotechnology companies. The potential beneficiaries could include human medical research, animal health, plant science and bioenergy, to name a few.

Although he provided no specific dollar figure, Nixon estimated the proposal could generate “tens of millions of dollars” for biotechnology incentives.

A similar funding mechanism first was proposed in the Missouri Legislature in 2003, Gillespie said, but never gained much traction — partly because of the intense debate over the potential funding of certain kinds of human embryonic stem cell research.

But Gillespie said the effort appears to be gaining momentum, noting Nixon’s endorsement and that of some key legislators who handle economic development bills.

State Rep. Tim Flook, chairman of the House Job Creation and Economic Development Committee, has said that creation of a science and biotechnology authority would be one of the top economic development proposals for the 2010 session.

Nixon on Tuesday also launched a $12 million grant program for community colleges and local governments to create or expand technical education programs. The grants are specifically aimed at veterinary and pharmacy technicians, nursing aides and skilled crafts. They will be funded with federal dollars.