WASHINGTON — The nation's governors — including Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt — called Thursday for a change in the way government and business look at the economy.

Instead of viewing it as a gigantic whole, they urge treating it as a series of small clusters and finding ways to help each specific geographic or business cluster.

"We in our state refer to them not as clusters, but as economic ecosystems," Leavitt said in a roundtable discussion with six other governors. It was part of a conference sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council on Competitiveness to help jump-start their idea.

"An ecosystem in the environment is a place where all the elements of sustaining life exists. We're looking for the same kind of thing in our economic areas," Leavitt said.

He said some business clusters Utah has identified within its borders include gene mapping, computer graphics, Internet services and medical devices.

"I mention those because where we see our opportunity is in the connection or the convergence of some of those," he said.

For example, he said one convergence came between gene-mapping research at the Huntsman Cancer Institute and genealogical databases of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"Being able to take these family histories and go back 150 years, and then take cancer registries . . . we can literally begin to define DNA tracks for families," showing genetic links to various diseases.

With that, "The University of Utah, for example, has been able to map, I think, 33 or 34 different genes" that "led to pharmaceutical and other innovations" for companies in the state, Leavitt said.

Another example, he said, was a Utah computer graphics company that merged its work with medical research because the company's owner had a young daughter with a brain tumor.

They devised a way to use electrodes on the skull "to create a 3-D image of her brain" to clearly show where the tumor was. Leavitt said brain tumors are often difficult to identify in surgery and until now have required extra exploration.

With the new computer imaging innovation, "the surgeon told me it was the first time in 23 years he had ever gone into surgery knowing where he was going," Leavitt said to laughs from the audience.

"The point is that we took basically a computer graphics technology, and where it converged with medical technology, it is the beginning of an entire new industry," Leavitt said.

Michigan Gov. John Engler, chairman of the National Governors Association, announced Thursday that the group is forming a task force of governors, academics and business leaders to help states foster economic growth through the "clusters" approach.

"The states that successfully implement these strategies will be the ones that thrive in the new economy," he said.

Engler said states especially want to use local universities and research facilities to provide technological innovations to support concentrations of businesses in their states.

For example, he said his state of Michigan is sponsoring vast research that may help its auto industry.


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