BioMed SA President Ann Stevens says her group's new economic development plan can "turn a collaborative culture we clearly have as a city … into an economic engine." Credit: Courtesy / Joel Spring for BioMedSA

A plan to create jobs, foster startups, and attract investment in San Antonio’s health care and bioscience industry will start with a focus on two key diseases – Type 2 diabetes and infectious diseases – prevalent in San Antonio.

That’s the recommendation coming from an economic development action plan  presented Wednesday morning at the annual BioMed SA membership meeting. City and business leaders in attendance represent an industry that has an estimated $37 billion annual impact on San Antonio’s economy.

BioMed SA, the nonprofit corporation founded in 2005 to help promote and grow San Antonio’s health care and bioscience industry, previewed initial results of the months-long strategic initiative as part of the city’s overall strategic plan for economic development, known as Forefront SA.

Developed in partnership with consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, BioMed SA’s plan provides more than 30 recommendations meant to help attract and recruit new business, retain and grow local business, and ignite and nurture the entrepreneurial development of startups.

Charlie Whelan, Frost & Sullivan’s director of consulting for transformational health, explained that the three-year action plan was developed through interviews with more than 80 local, regional, and national industry leaders, disease experts, and economic development professionals.

“San Antonio’s challenges are also San Antonio’s opportunities,” Whelan stated. “We view our population’s health needs and well-established biomedical community expertise as resources that give the city deeper knowledge, passion, and intensity to address key health challenges.”

Organized into two phases, the plan focuses on five disease areas that were previously identified by local industry leaders during BioMed SA’s Asset Initiative starting in 2011, and in subsequent strategic recommendations made by the San Antonio Medical Foundation in 2015.

“We tried to hone in on key areas of strength, and we came up with five disease areas or therapeutic areas where we felt San Antonio has assets and experience to become internationally recognized,” said Ann Stevens, founding president of BioMed SA.

“We began to shape our messaging around these disease areas, and raise our tactics in these areas. That was a strategy that worked well for us. It gave us more of a focus for our own efforts in representing the sector and began to suggest possible tactics that could be tried.”

Leveraging the city’s value as a tourist destination, BioMed SA in 2014 hosted the World Stem Cell Summit, drawing experts from what at the time was a new field of medicine that no other community “owned” yet, Stevens said. “We felt we had players here and we were just as much a stakeholder as anyone else.”

That effort led to the industry’s recognition that some of San Antonio’s major economic development players – the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, the City of San Antonio, and Texas Research and Technology Foundation – could join forces to create the action plan now being developed.

The first phase focuses on diabetes and infectious disease, such as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea.

San Antonio has one of the highest prevalence rates of diabetes among major cities in the country, particularly in its minority and low-income communities. Current data puts the city’s adult Type 2 diabetes rate at just under 25% in 2016, but the City’s Metropolitan Health District has estimated that the rate actually is closer to 35%, with many cases undiagnosed.

In addition, the incidence of some STDs are increasing at a high rate. For instance, between 2014 and 2015, the number of chlamydia cases in Bexar County increased from 11,127 to 13,313. The number of gonorrhea cases rose from 3,127 to 3,937 in that same time frame.

In treating these diseases, San Antonio’s health care providers, researchers, payors, and other businesses in the sector have developed expertise with these conditions.

“It’s simple, but if we truly want to attract more organizations related to diabetes treatment, we probably ought to have focused marketing materials so when the Economic Development Foundation goes to another community to attract business, they would have the necessary information to make San Antonio attractive to those organizations,” said Walt Downing, executive vice president of Southwest Research Institute and  board chairman of BioMedSA.

Looking more broadly, Downing added there would be a “nexus of activity related to innovation,” in the area of health care and diabetes. “A citywide diabetes nexus would drive more … solutions, getting the information closer to the community.”

The second phase of the action plan – to be developed and released in 2018 – will focus on cancer, neurological disorders such as Alzheimers disease, and trauma, including wound healing and regenerative medicine. The latter is an area where San Antonio’s military medicine experts are making great strides.

“We think we’re really raising the profile of San Antonio bioscience throughout the world,” Downing said. “One of the things we need to be conscious of is not to become too parochial, and focus only on what we’re doing internally. We need to be aware of not only what’s going on in other cities, but also collaborate with them as well.”

BioMed SA expects to host a series of workshops with local industry leaders to help shape tangible next steps.

“It will continue to be an evolution,” Stevens said. “I think what we’re trying to do with the plan and the opportunities we have, which are huge, is to turn a collaborative culture we clearly have as a city … into an economic engine, and that is one of the overarching goals of this plan.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.