The dusty, weed-covered lot in South Central El Paso doesn’t look like much; it is home to a warehouse vacated by Quality Foods and a graffiti-covered, concrete block building.
But Albert Di Rienzo imagines high-tech buildings covering the 12-acre site and those buildings filled with scientists creating cures and inventing medical devices.
He imagines entrepreneurs turning those ideas into high-growth global companies headquartered in El Paso, growing the city’s GDP and employing its college graduates.
Di Rienzo is quick to admit there are enormous challenges, but he has been successful before. And after years of planning, construction begins on the tech park’s first building next January.
Di Rienzo is a former executive of a major medical-devices manufacturer in New York and a co-founder of a successful technology accelerator now at Syracuse University.
He formed the accelerator, Blue Highway, in 2008 while he was the chief science and technology officer at Welch Allyn. At the time the company’s product pipeline was dwindling, so Di Rienzo proposed to its board members that they form a biotech accelerator to spur development of new products and services for the medical industry.
The plan was successful and generated millions of dollars for Welch Allyn, but the company was quickly overwhelmed by new products. And, in 2011, Syracuse University acquired the accelerator, which has generated 26 products and services for the health care industry.
Last month, after a national search, Di Rienzo was hired to run El Paso’s new Biomedical Institute of the Americas, a subsidiary of the Medical Center of the Americas Foundation. Officials would not disclose his salary.
The foundation is guiding the development of a 440-acre medical park encompassing the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine and University Medical Center. It’s a decades-long project, but the focus of development right now is the 12-acre tech park where the biomedical institute would be located.
In El Paso, Di Rienzo’s first move was to recruit some of his former colleagues to the institute, forming a sort of brainy “dream team.”
Last month, the institute hired Mark Frazer, who has a master’s degree in computer science and an MBA; Jeff Fuchsberg, an entomologist and intellectual property expert; and Australian Neyha Sehgal, who has a master’s of public health and an MBA.
The tech park’s first building would house the biomedical institute and overlook Interstate 10 near Reynolds.
Texas Tech and the City Health Department plan to lease space in the four-story, 83,000-square-foot building for laboratories, including a biosafety level 3 research lab where researchers could work with some of the world’s most lethal pathogens.
Di Rienzo, 54, was raised in Virginia Beach, Va., an East Coast vacation spot at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. But his dad had a career in the U.S. Navy and the family moved a lot, to California, Ohio, New Mexico, Michigan, Virginia and New York.
Di Rienzo raced motocross for a while, then became interested in custom motorcycles. He owns an extreme custom chopper that’s styled after the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
The bike, which has been featured in magazines and won shows, was designed by Di Rienzo and built by Pat Briggs of County Line Choppers in Central New York. In a similarly dark vein, Di Rienzo is also a huge fan of Batman.
He has a Batman lunch pail in his office, a Batman screen saver on his computer and fond memories of sitting on the sofa with his two kids when they were young to watch “Batman: The Animated Series.”
“I’m just a geek,” he says.
Di Rienzo also used to be a distance runner. Now that he’s in El Paso, he takes a long run in the Franklin Mountains every morning before work.
With a degree in computer science and a professor of forensic science at Syracuse University, he has also become known as an expert on biological terrorism.
He served a three-year term on the National Biodefense Science Board, which provides the federal government with expert advice on chemical and biological radiological and nuclear threats to the U.S.
Di Rienzo sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about his vision for the biomedical institute, why he left a great job in New York to come to El Paso, and why Batman is superior to Superman.
Q: How did you become so interested in motorcycles?
I’ve always liked motorcycles. You know, I was one of those kids who tinkered with everything, so I probably broke everything in my parents’ house. I wanted to take things apart to see how they worked. When I was older, I took care of everything around the house – took care of the cars, took care of appliances.
Q: Why did you study computer science?
I welded at the Newport News shipyard for a number of years to put myself through college, working on super tankers, aircraft carriers and submarines. I went into computer science because I loved machines. I liked aircraft – a lot of the things that were sort of very sophisticated in the space and defense industry.
I had an interest in being a fighter pilot, but I was too old by the time I got out of college. I was also really intrigued by artificial intelligence, so that was my focus area.
Q: You had an established job in New York – you’ve called it your baby, your passion – so why come to El Paso?
Great question. It was a combination of things. What I saw here was very exciting. It seemed like the community had this big vision – whether you were talking to universities, industry or the government.
There is an incredible regulatory environment that is very favorable for business in Texas.
The universities in this region are top of the line and the labs are incredible; I have met some very smart people here. In a lot of respects, I could see the opportunity to build a Blue Highway on steroids here.
There is so much more that can be done in this region to help the people of the region, to keep the people that are coming out of the schools here in the region and to be recognized as this biomed/biotech capital in the United States.
Q: Had you heard of El Paso before? How well known is El Paso in biotech circles?
Certainly people have heard of El Paso, but have they heard of it in those circles? No. It means that El Paso is not seen as a threat, but that is an advantage for us.
You think of Boston for things like biomed, but we have an opportunity to surprise a number of folks by the types of things we’re going to do.
I serve on various advisory boards and alliances at Johns Hopkins, Columbia University and Cornell University; we’re not on their radar screen.
It is going to give us an opportunity to come from what they would see as maybe an impossible position to really being a world-class institution. I hope the level of National Institutes of Health funding in El Paso and all that radically improves.
Q: How does El Paso compare in terms of NIH funding?
Take Johns Hopkins for instance. Just in NIH funding, it gets about $600 million a year, so there is no comparison. That’s more than all of the universities in the region are getting here.
Q: What is the Biomedical Institute of the Americas?
It is a work in progress. We’ll role out an official mission, vision and strategy the very first part of August. Stay tuned.
What I can tell you, in general, is it is going to be an accelerator of technology. It is going to be an incubator of science and technology for the health care community. It is going to be an educator; we are going to help people learn how to take an idea and commercialize it.
Maybe a company has a really tough problem and it can’t figure out how to solve it; we are going to help them do that. While we are scientists and technologists, we are scientists and technologists who have really strong business acumen.
We know how to manage projects, we understand the business role and we know how to take something from research to industry because we have all done it.
Q: How many startups might the institute work with?
If we could have a dozen highly viable projects in the queue at any one time, that would be great.
Q: How is the biomedical institute and its future home funded?
Part will be through tenants leasing the space, part will be through the city’s Impact Fund and part will come from donors. We also recently won a $1-million federal grant to fund the design and engineering of the building.
It’s going to be an exciting building, and it’s going to be a space designed to be highly collaborative. We want people from all these disparate settings to run into each other, gathering in the lecture halls or little cafés. That’s how innovation comes about.
Q: It’s rumored that the Medical Center of the Americas is kicking off a capital campaign to help fund the building. Why isn’t the funding from the city’s Impact Fund enough?
The building has a $28-million price tag. The fund pays us approximately $3 million a year for 20 years. For a building like that, there is a huge upfront cost. There are three local banks that have stepped up to do the financing.
For the biomedical institute, much of the money will go toward salaries and seed funding to help launch startup companies. Ultimately, the goal is for the biomedical institute to be self-sustaining and the building funded by tenants.
Q: Why does El Paso need a biomedical institute?
If you look at what is going on in the stock market, biomed is one of the best performing sectors, and it is ripe for change. The U.S. is in trouble. We spend almost $3 trillion in health care, and we lose about $9 trillion in lost productivity related to health care.
In this region, a biomed sector will create a foundation for sustainable growth. We want to increase the GDP of this region; we want to keep talent in this region and to attract more people to this region.
Q: El Paso isn’t the only place that wants to develop a biotech sector – most places would like a Pfizer in their backyard – what makes El Paso stand out?
We are going to do it differently. There are incubators all over the place that have to do with biotech and most of them fail. But we are going to take a very different approach in how we make sure the companies we bring here are right and the technology we are rolling out is right.
We are tied into funders; we are tied into people who understand the intellectual property component, the science and technology component, and the regulatory component.
There is a unique footprint in the Paso del Norte Region. I mean, you have the Latino population that has unique health care needs. What a perfect place to figure out how to solve those problems and help that population.
We have Fort Bliss with the Army, which is dealing with a lot of issues related to Traumatic Brain Injury, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and such. The region is a perfect test bed to help solve these problems and set an example for the rest of the country.
Q: What is the state of the biotech sector in the region? How would you describe it?
There is a lot of good work going on, but it’s really sort of disjointed right now.
Q: A study done some years ago described the biotech sector as “shallow.” How many established biotech companies are there here? Are there any?
As far as the number of biotech companies, no. It’s still shallow.
Q: I’ve had executives of biotech startups in El Paso tell me it would be easier for them to be in a biotech hub like Boston or San Francisco, and they have only stayed here because they are from El Paso and believe in the vision. How do you change that?
It’s already started. The foundation laid by the Medical Center of the Americas is key. The biomedical institute is really going to wrap this up.
Part of our mission is to address the infrastructure issues. We are going to help to make those startups in this region successful.
We just visited one of the university labs and they have a number of things they want help with spinning off and commercializing, so we are going to help.
There’s a lot of passion and momentum in this community – more than I’ve seen in most communities, and I work a lot in Boston or San Francisco. Maybe those who are from here don’t notice it, but, as an outsider, it’s very friendly.
I mean, I’ve already attracted three other people – one from Australia, two from New York – and I have a whole slew of people who would love to come here once we start growing.
We just interviewed a Ph.D. in organic chemistry who wants to come here. His wife has a Ph.D. in computational biochemistry. She is going to be coming up to interview as well.
Q: How quickly should the community begin to feel the impact of the institute?
Within five years you’re looking at a robust biomedical institute – well staffed, up and running, some things licensed, some companies spun off, bringing in money. It will probably take that long to become self-sustaining.
The whole game is to have sustainable economic growth and that means year over year you are continuing to improve and maybe reinvent yourself a little bit. In the science and technology world you can never just rest and become comfortable. If you do, that’s when you lose your edge and people take advantage of you.
It’s going to be a constant growth path – it has to be. And it has to be one where we are constantly changing and adapting or else we are going to fail.
Q: Does the region have the type of workers biotech companies desire?
Some, but there will be more with time. We’ll leverage the local community a lot when it comes to manufacturing and prototyping. I’ve met a lot of professors here I’d love to recruit, and there are a number of students working on their graduate or doctorate degrees that would be perfect for the institute.
I will also be able to bring in some key hires from the outside. The reason I went with outside hires initially is because they hit the ground running. They know me, I know them and there is no ramp time, so we get to move incredibly fast right out of the gate.
Q: How many are employed by the biomedical institute now?
Only five people right now, and we will probably hire a sixth before the end of August. The institute will never become huge, because some of our team will spin out companies and leave the institute with those companies.
That’s what we want to happen. We want all this creative talent to come in, create companies and grow those companies in the region.
Q: I hear you are a huge Batman fan. Why Batman?
Even though you can argue Batman has superpowers, he really doesn’t; he’s just sort of a really in-shape rich guy. I love all the gadgetry – that’s why.
Superman? Oh gosh, he’s got the superpowers. Then there’s kryptonite and all that. Actually, Batman won when he fought Superman.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.