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SEEKING TO EXCEL
STATE LOOKS AT RESEARCH CENTER TO BRING IN JOBS

In his annual address to lawmakers, the governor called for creation of "centers of excellence" to tap into the vast talent at public universities and help spawn high-technology jobs in economically lagging communities.

The year was 1985, and the governor was Mark White of Texas.

Sixteen years later, New York finds itself playing catch-up. Hundreds of centers of excellence -- facilities using top researchers to concentrate on specific problems or fields of study -- popped up over the past couple of decades across the United States and in nations from Russia to Australia.

Now it is Buffalo's turn.

Officials in Buffalo and here at the Capitol are working to craft a newly proposed Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics to help companies launch high-technology products and ideas.

In turn, scientists hope the initiative will lead to an array of breakthroughs -- from new drugs to treat human ailments, to easier and surer ways to produce food, to cheaper ways to clean up toxic dumps.

The importance for Buffalo, though, will be jobs.

And if the program's excited proponents are to be believed, there will be lots of jobs -- centered at research companies and spinoff firms that will take the ideas now only dreamed of and turn them into real products.

Ten years from now, the Center of Excellence could mean big things for the area.

"It'll be a whole new image for the Buffalo area," University at Buffalo President William R. Greiner predicted last week. He was speaking during a lobbying visit by dozens of top UB officials, Mayor Anthony M. Masiello and business executives to the state Capitol to tout the high-technology abilities of the university.

UB will lead the proposed Center of Excellence in Buffalo.

For now, though, these hopes are pinned on a project still very much in its infancy since Gov. George E. Pataki unveiled it last month.

The governor's office declined to provide specifics. Officials behind closed doors in Albany and Buffalo try to answer for themselves a whole range of questions about the center. The same gag rule for specifics held true among officials with UB, Roswell Park Cancer Institute and some of the private companies expected to play a role in the center.

And the questions about the center are many.

Who will put up what amount of money to create what has been touted as a world-class research center?

Among the lead corporate partners with the deepest pockets are expected to be Veridian, IBM and at least one of the major drug companies, such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, but no one will say for sure.

Further confusing matters, one of the companies Pataki said would be involved in the Buffalo center, the industrial-gas company Praxair, said last week its collaboration will not be with the Buffalo center but with the University at Albany -- one of the other two Centers of Excellence that Pataki announced.

Where will the center be located?

Again, the plans are vague, but the leading locations for a possible 150,000-square-foot complex to house the center and its researchers are on High Street amid the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and at UB's South Campus.

What specific research will be done?

That is still largely up in the air as the center awaits word on which private firms will be involved. In general, though, the center will focus on the emerging field of bioinformatics, a term that roughly involves using computer science skills to collect and decipher huge amounts of information to help solve problems in biology.

Jobs from the genome?

The work will likely include taking the findings of scientists who are dissecting the genome -- the human body's 3-billion-letter genetic code -- and turning that information into practical applications that can be used by private industries.

The toughest question may be this: Can such basic research, which may produce answers to some burning biological question somewhere, really create a significant number of jobs, and will they be in Buffalo or some distant home to a company piggybacking onto the research?

It is a question officials must deal with as they try to meet the political demands the Pataki administration wants the center to satisfy for the most economically ailing region of the state.

Officials say the vagueness is the result of the project's infancy and, in part, by design.

"We know it will go in many directions," said Bruce Holm, UB's senior associate dean of medicine who is spearheading much of the center's direction. "People are speaking in vague terms because there's so many possibilities for it, not because it's undefined, but every day new applications are being found where centers like this provide an incredible resource. So people are trying not to limit the possibilities."

A major commitment

Indeed, the plan still has to be adopted by the State Legislature as part of this year's budget process.

"It's a big deal because it's a major commitment to the area of research. It's a major commitment to Western New York. It's a major commitment to a technology that has the potential to create jobs, and it's a major commitment to a technology with the real potential to benefit our health. There's no question about this," said George DeTitta, chief executive officer of Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute, one of the local partners involved in the creation of the center.

The Buffalo center is one of three Pataki proposed creating -- besides Rochester and Albany -- with $283 million in state money over the next five years. He estimates the centers will bring in at least another $700 million combined during the period to fund the research projects the three centers will take on that, in the end, will create "jobs for the next generation of New Yorkers," he said.

The Rochester Center of Excellence in Photonics and Optoelectronics is furthest along since Kodak, Corning and Xerox last month pledged to put up or raise $75 million to help start the center's work. Officials in Buffalo privately lament that the region does not have the same kinds of deep corporate pockets as the Rochester center, forcing them to go to smaller companies and firms with headquarters outside the region.

The Buffalo center will use the resources of UB's supercomputer, believed to be the eighth-most-powerful computer in academic hands in the United States.

How powerful is it?

Officials talk of work done some years ago on one project before the arrival of the supercomputer that took a computer running nonstop for five months to calculate. Now that work can be done in a day. And Buffalo's Center of Excellence, with public and private money backing, hopes to get enough firepower to improve that speed by a factor of 10, Holm said.

That is crucial and attractive to private industry, because there is such enormous amounts of information about, for instance, the human genetic code that has to be acquired, stored, then analyzed and presented. Such a process is called informatics.

Technological gold rush

This week, scientists working on the worldwide genome project say they have identified fewer than 35,000 distinctively human genes, far fewer than earlier believed, and only twice the number contained in a fruit fly.

In the coming years, scientists will be taking the genome findings and putting them to practical use, such as developing more potent drugs to deal with diseases or being able to tell years in advance who may be susceptible to certain kinds of diseases.

As more is known about the genetic code, a technological gold rush is getting started by universities and private companies around the world seeking to put the genome findings to work. Indeed, a host of bioinformatic centers of the kind Buffalo is envisioning have already opened around the nation.

But UB officials say Buffalo is well-positioned to move ahead in the field, in part because of the high-technology infrastructure and brainpower it already has on campus and the complementary skills the local research partners will bring to the center.

That includes UB's supercomputer and its amazing virtual-reality center that allows scientists to "visualize" findings in chemistry or engineering and turn them into, for example, a new drug.

Still, officials admit the Buffalo center will have to find its niche to compete for corporate research dollars over the long term. Moreover, UB already works on research projects with dozens of private companies.

"We have the base here to build upon," said Russ Miller, director of UB's Center for Computational Research, which serves as a focal point in the Center of Excellence's development. "It's just a question of trying to get it together in a way that makes sense scientifically and politically."

At the top of the political consideration comes accountability and results -- and presumably, for a governor seeking re-election next year, those results will start to be seen by 2002.

A Buffalo research center that creates drug-company jobs in North Carolina will not work politically -- not with the kind of public funds being discussed.

"We'd all like the elected officials to make sure they're comfortable as well. The money is taxpayer money, which means they are accountable to their constituents. So we want to make sure and they want to make sure what it is we want to do and that we understand what they expect of us," Miller said of the give-and-take now going on between Buffalo and Albany.

Officials, again without specifics, say UB has already been approached by biotechnology companies interested in locating operations in Buffalo if the Center of Excellence project comes together. They say the center will be able to attract everything from drug manufacturers and companies with a stake in brain mapping to defense industry firms and even companies interested in being able to better understand earthquakes and volcanoes.

An announcement, similar to one made in Rochester, is expected from Pataki in the next few weeks concerning the future of the Buffalo center. For now, the administration will only say the Buffalo center is "a top priority" of Pataki, according to a spokesman for the governor.

DeTitta of Hauptman-Woodward said the center could be used to help develop drugs with fewer side effects, create "bugs" to do safer and cheaper environmental cleanup of toxic sites or even to help grow better plants for food. And the jobs will flow, he said.

Before a drug is manufactured, there are a host of steps -- all requiring workers -- to figure how to take a chemical concept all the way to the point it can be safely sold to consumers.

"If the impetus from the governor's office is to create jobs, this is a good way to do it," DeTitta said. "If the impetus is to promote research, this is a good way to do it."

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