Within Utah’s booming tech sector, the state’s rapidly evolving biotechnology industry is being turbocharged by projects like Tech Lake City and BioHive. These initiatives are helping companies that are already advancing cutting edge science make even more progress.

Tech Lake City is a concept designed by Salt Lake City’s Department of Economic Development to deliberately and intentionally create more tech jobs centered in Salt Lake, according to Clark Cahoon, technology and innovation adviser in the Department of Economic Development. 

“One of the ways that we’ve approached (Tech Lake City) is by really focusing on something that Salt Lake City has already, but maybe isn’t really well known in the community, and that’s health care innovation,” he said. 

Health care innovation is the culmination of life sciences and digital health. Traditionally, life sciences include medical device manufacturing, diagnostics, genomics and precision medicines. Digital health software is advancing life sciences through software overlays.

“It was very clear that the future was not only life sciences as we traditionally do it … but the digital health overlay with that in the software, it was becoming more and more apparent,” he said. 

Cahoon said there hasn’t been a citywide effort to focus on the tech industry and give it the resources it needs to grow. 

“In short, the major goal is to create a sense of place,” Cahoon said. “So helping these companies find the right part of the city to be able to grow, clustering up innovators, innovative companies, and having a sense of place that you can point to and say, ‘Oh, that neighborhood over there, that’s where different life science or digital health or health care innovation companies are.’”

Senior product manager Samantha Lee works at her desk at the Recursion offices in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Recursion is a biotech company that specializes in drug discovery. According to the company’s president and chief operating officer, Tina Larson, Recursion’s mission is to decode biology to radically improve lives by being a pioneering tech bio company. 

“(Recursion is) full of robots, and the robots are doing science every day, and they’re doing the science of decoding human biology, understanding how our human disease works, and then finding the potential treatments to address that disease,” she said. 

Larson said Recursion works with Tech Lake City and has helped found BioHive, a hub for life science and health care innovation within Utah. 

Aimee Edwards, executive director of BioHive, said the group’s mission is to brand, build and bring together Utah’s life science and health care innovation ecosystem.

“(BioHive) came to be because there are members of the community that wanted to unite to make a larger impact together and they saw opportunities to do so,” she said.

BioHive is made up of several companies and government partnerships, and through these collaborations it has contributed 8% of Utah’s GDP and 538 bioscience related patents, and is sixth in the nation per capita in venture capitalist investments.

Overall, the biotechnology industry has seen increased growth in recent years. Edwards said Utah is the fastest-growing life science and health care innovation industry in the nation. According to a Kem C. Gardner study, Utah has seen 5.7% annual growth compared to the national average of 3.2%.

“Life science accounts for 150,000 direct and indirect jobs in the state of Utah, and accounts for about $16 billion in GDP,” Edwards said.

Larson said in order to have a successful company like Recursion, there needs to be community and effort from universities, cities and government partners. 

“You just need people that are going to be engaged and the employees that are going to start companies, so BioHive is really bringing together all of these different members of the community that are required to truly grow an innovative health care tech ecosystem,” Larson said.

A researcher works in a lab at the Recursion offices in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Recursion was founded in 2013 by two graduate students and a professor from the University of Utah. Larson said coming out of the university environment was a big reason for choosing to headquarter in Salt Lake. 

“One thing about Salt Lake is, I think people probably underappreciate it, as it is actually the fastest-growing life science ecosystem in the country,” she said. “I spent most of my career in the San Francisco Bay area, Cambridge, Boston — those are the big biotech hubs — but Salt Lake City and Utah is actually a rapidly growing hub.”

Juan Rodriguez is an applied mathematician at Recursion. He started working for the company in 2018 after considering jobs at several other companies in Seattle, New York and the Bay Area.

“In 2018, I wasn’t expecting to be finding a company that was doing such innovative things in Utah, or that was really trying to push barriers in the bio tech sector,” he said.

Rodriguez said the environment that has emerged in recent years has made it clear that Utah has the capabilities and the companies who want to push the boundaries on how biotechnology is advancing.

“I feel like Utah can be a central place for that type of innovation of focusing on others and focusing on helping people and harnessing the power of technology to really ... improve the life of millions of people that suffer from diseases that aren’t curable right now, but that we might have a cure for in the next few years, thanks to our initiatives,” he said.

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Larson said Recursion has attracted more than $1 billion of capital for the state. 

“This is a real economic opportunity for Utah,” Larson said. “Utah has all of the right ingredients to continue to grow that opportunity, so it is economically very exciting.”

Larson has been working in the biotech industry for 30 years, including researching a drug early on in her career that fundamentally changed how breast cancer is treated. 

“You can see over the years, taking something that was almost a death sentence diagnosis and turning it into something where women are living and even thriving after this diagnosis — that’s what got me hooked on this industry — and that’s why it’s so exciting for Salt Lake City, for Utah to be one of the hubs and ecosystems that actually finds that next generation of therapeutics and opportunities for the world,” she said. 

Automation machines are seen in the lab at the Recursion offices in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News
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