From left: Outgoing BioMedSA Chairman Kenneth Trevett passes the baton to Southwest Research Institute Executive Vice President Walt Downing. Credit: Courtesy / Joel Spring for BioMedSA

Industry group breakfasts are seldom the setting for emotional outpourings and standing ovations. There’s something about early morning buffet lines staged outside hotel ballrooms that keep spirits in check.

Wednesday’s BioMedSA meeting at the Omni Hotel at the Colonnade was different.

Kenneth Trevett, recruited to San Antonio from California nearly a decade ago to serve as president and CEO of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, was delivering his final remarks to an audience of 160 health care and bioscience leaders after serving for the last five years as chairman of the board of the nonprofit BioMedSA, the economic development and promotional arm of San Antonio’s fast-growing health care and bioscience sector.

Trevett, who retired as the institute’s CEO in 2014, was now handing the BioMedSA chairman’s baton to Walt Downing, the executive vice president of the Southwest Research Institute. Trevett, speaking in a slow and halting voice, his head bowed to his script, listed several key points for growing the city’s health care and bioscience industry, and then said, “I want to conclude on a personal note. It has been an honor for me to work with so many of you in supporting your institutions and enterprises as well as the sector as a whole. I hope I have helped you in making a health care difference.

“And this has become even more important to me as a user of clinical services here, first for my wife (Barbara) whose care at the START Center extended her life with innovative new approaches to her cancer. And now, for me, as I have just received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. I have every confidence that my care at the Health Science Center will be as innovative and effective as is possible.

“Not one of us will be spared a confrontation with illness. What better way, then, to spend our time and energy than supporting an environment and enterprise of care and healing. Thank you all for what you do for the city and for the future of medicine. You are making a real difference in the lives of millions.”

Audience members came to their feet in a sustained and emotional standing ovation. Trevett slowly lifted up his head from his script as if the applause had caught him by complete surprise.

Outgoing BioMedSA Chairman Kenneth Trevett speaks to the audience.
Outgoing BioMedSA Chairman Kenneth Trevett speaks to the audience. Credit: Courtesy / Joel Spring for BioMedSA

Going public makes Trevett a role model for facing disease with dignity, and the Rivard Report will delve more deeply into his decision and his treatment in a future article. It was something else he said Wednesday morning that stuck with me.

“We should not be penny wise in telling the story of our accomplishments,” Trevett said. “We need to get the word out more consistently and more broadly that San Antonio is a player – a major player – in the international biomedical community. This takes resources, and we need to promote funding of BioMedSA at a realistic level of several times what it is today.”

BioMedSA President Ann Stevens speaks to the audience at the Omni Hotel at the Colonnade.
BioMedSA President Ann Stevens speaks to the audience at the Omni Hotel at the Colonnade. Credit: Courtesy / Joel Spring for BioMedSA

BioMedSA was formed a decade ago, driven by former Mayor Henry Cisneros, one of the most effective economic development leaders in the city’s contemporary history. It was founded to help vault San Antonio’s growing health care and bioscience assets on to the national and international stage. As long as Cisneros was chairman, BioMedSA played that role, even as it remained a small office with President Ann Stevens and an administrative assistant as its only salaried employees.

When the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce conducted a study of the local health care and bioscience industry in 2005, the year BioMedSA was founded, it was a $14 billion a year sector that accounted for 109,000 jobs, Downing told the audience. The chamber’s 2015 study put the numbers at $37 billion and 172,000 jobs.

Yet when Cisneros handed over the chairman’s role to Trevett five years ago, the organization’s small budget grew smaller. Trevett, a lawyer, worked tirelessly, if unsuccessfully, to win new funding and he did reorganize BioMedSA as a 501(c)3 nonprofit so donor contributions would be tax deductible. But Cisneros was a hard act to follow. Few people have his network of connections or powers of persuasion.

“Clearly the growth of San Antonio’s health care and bioscience sector has gained momentum,” Downing said. “Will it continue to coast along at the current steady and healthy pace? Or can we accelerate the momentum by setting higher goals, bringing together more partners in even stronger collaborations, and committing more time, energy, and resources in the effort? Only time will tell. But we can shape the future by the actions that we take now.”

Southwest Research Institute Executive Vice President Walt Downing gives remarks.
Southwest Research Institute Executive Vice President Walt Downing gives remarks. Credit: Courtesy / Joel Spring for BioMedSA

Downing, born at the Nix Hospital and the son of a Kelly Air Force Base civil servant, is the highly-regarded number two executive at the Southwest Research Institute. It would be a waste of talent and leadership to ask him to spend the next five years serving as chairman of BioMedSA without growing it.

Even now, BioMedSA operates on a mere $550,000 a year, for which it is expected to promote and help grow the most important sector of the local economy.

The City of San Antonio contributes $100,000 a year, a sum that has not grown at all over 10 years, while Bexar County no longer contributes its matching $100,000. Half that sum, $50,000, from the County’s contribution to the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation is passed through to BioMedSA. CPS Energy contributes $50,000, and the remainder comes from the nonprofit’s business members and an annual dinner.

That makes it impossible for BioMedSA to operate globally. It has little opportunity to help recruit more conventions like the 2015 World Stem Cell Summit the city hosted, or to travel to national and international meetings to promote the city, and to network and recruit bioscience spinoffs and startups. It also means the organization is unable to even afford a media relations associate to help tell the San Antonio story here and in the national media.

The Rivard Report will be hiring two new reporters in early 2017, one to cover all aspects of public health in San Antonio and the region, and the other to cover business news, including the biosciences and tech. Both reporters will help us tell stories that otherwise would go untold.

But the health care and bioscience industry is the city’s most important economic engine, and it continues to grow. The opportunities to accelerate that growth are there, but it will take greater investment to make it happen. A chamber committee that concluded its work in November called for greater funding for BioMedSA as key, but sources were not identified.

If Stevens were ever to leave her position, there would be no one in the organization to take her place. No leader likes to make succession planning a priority, but every leader ought to do it. Until San Antonio’s leaders decide BioMedSA deserves to be more than a one-person shop, Stevens will have to go it alone.

It’s not a one-person job.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.