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Houston expert: Houston should focus on developing the region's life sciences sector

Houston needs to work on developing its life sciences infrastructure, like what the TMC3 project is providing. Courtesy of Elkus Manfredi Architects

The region's health care sector has been Greater Houston's job growth engine over the past few decades — creating new jobs at a rate 75 percent greater than the overall economy — according to research published last month in Center for Houston's Future report, Houston's Economic Future: Health Care.

But data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and Bureau of Labor suggest that in many ways the economic footprint of our health care sector is not in line with the share of employment that health care commands across the region: While health care accounts for about 12 percent of the region's jobs, it is responsible for just 5.4 percent of Greater Houston's total gross domestic product.

By comparison, our energy sector holds roughly the same share of GDP as health care, but employs about just a fifth the number of employees.

To bridge this gap, Houston should focus on developing the region's life sciences sector, a promising economic development area with a potentially high economic payoff.

The life sciences represent a trillion-dollar plus global industry spanning pharmaceutical development, medical device manufacturing, research and commercialization of biotechnology and more. The employment multiplier — a measure of the economic contribution an occupation has on the greater economy — of a life sciences job exceeds that of generic jobs in health care by 40 percent.

Modeling conducted by the Center suggests a concerted effort to develop the region's life sciences industries compared to a 'business as usual' approach would yield an additional $13.1 billion in GDP and 73,000 jobs by 2036.

Historically, this industry has clustered on the East and West Coasts of the U.S., but recent efforts signal encouraging signs of progress.

Examples include the creation of TMC3 at the Texas Medical Center, a collaborative, multi-institution effort to build a life sciences research campus; the development of Houston's innovation corridor anchored by The Ion; and investment from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), a $6 billion state program to advance cancer research efforts and promote economic development.

Greater Houston has the potential to become the so-called Third Coast if we build on momentum that's starting to take hold.

Findings from our report suggest, however, that more work is needed to advance the life sciences.

This sector continues to grow rapidly—employment in this area rose by 37 percent from 2009 to 2019. Yet, the Center identified troubling data points, including that the number of people working in biotechnology and life sciences research and development declined by 13 percent from 2018 to 2008.

Our research identified several hurdles the region still faces in cultivating our still-nascent life sciences industry. First, Houston is still energy-dominant, with limited investment capital glowing to the life sciences. We must figure out how to attract venture capital, whether it be from Boston, Silicon Valley or elsewhere, to facilitate the growth of our existing biotechnology and life sciences firms and boost the rate of startup formation.

Second, Greater Houston continues to struggle with retaining life sciences talent, businesses and intellectual property. In some of the roughly 50 interviews the Center conducted with health care subject-matter experts, we heard that some businesses in the field relocate from Texas as soon as they begin growing. We believe the region should consider developing a cross-sector push for innovation that includes effectively scaling the research catalyzed by CPRIT.

By adopting a common vision and working together to grow Greater Houston's life sciences cluster, we can boost our economy and better position our health care sector to capitalize on the myriad new health care technologies that will emerge over the next couple decades.

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Steven Scarborough is manager of strategic initiatives at Center for Houston's Future and the principal author of Houston's Economic Future: Health Care.

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Building Houston

 
 

As the new UH medical school welcomes its second class, it's also planning for a new facility to support low-cost care. Photo via UH.edu

The University of Houston College of Medicine has announced it will open a low-cost health care facility thanks to a $1 million gift from The Cullen Trust for Health Care.

UHCOM will open the direct primary care clinic on the campus of Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital, and, according to a news release from UH, it's only just the beginning of a network of clinics focused on treating those without health insurance.

"A direct primary care practice will add value to the local health care ecosystem by tackling one of the most pressing problems of our city: the lack of a comprehensive primary care system for the uninsured," says UH President Renu Khator in the release. "The Cullen Trust for Health Care shares our commitment to improving the overall health and health care of the population of Greater Houston and we are grateful for their support."

The direct primary care, or DPC, model is an alternative to insurance-based and fee-based care and eliminates third party payers. Instead, patients pay a monthly membership to receive primary care services — including telehealth, basic office procedures, at-cost laboratory testing, and access to medications at reduced prices. The clinic will offer same-day or next-day appointments as a guarantee and be staffed by faculty physicians and UH health professions students.

"The UH College of Medicine wants to restore primary care as the foundation of health care. We have developed a model with strong incentives to innovate the delivery of primary care designed to improve quality and more effectively control the cost of care," says Dr. Stephen Spann, founding dean of the UH College of Medicine, in the release. "We are building our model upon the four pillars of access, population health, social determinants of health and trusting relationships. In this framework, the physician is accountable for the health of their member panel and will demonstrate long-term cost and quality outcomes."

Dr. Stephen Spann is the founding dean of the UH College of Medicine. Photo via UH.edu

Founded in 2020, UHCOM's brief existence has been supported by generous donors – including a foundational $50 million gift as well as an endowment. This latest funding is from The Cullen Trust for Health Care — established in 1978 as an organization that grants financial assistance to institutions providing health care services in the Greater Houston area.

"The Cullen Trust for Health Care is proud to support this pilot endeavoring to bring a new form of patient-centered primary care to Houston's underserved communities. We are hopeful that the new UH College of Medicine direct primary care clinic will proactively engage patients to increase utilization and improve continuity of care," says Cullen Geiselman, chairman of the board for The Cullen Trust for Health Care.

This week, the school also announced its second-ever class of students. The UHCOM class of 2025 includes 30 students selected out of about 6,000 applicants. According to a news release, more than half of the second cohort received a $100,000 four-year scholarship. The future doctors will be celebrated with a White Coat Ceremony on Saturday, July 31, at the Hilton University of Houston.

More than half — 67 percent — of the new class is female and 60 percent of the group are Black or Hispanic. Sixty-three percent represent low socioeconomic status (as defined by Texas Medical Dental Schools Application Services).

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