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Slow-starting University at Buffalo genomics research project hires executive director

A major genomics research project that has languished in the two years since state and local leaders announced that it would create 600 high-tech jobs for the Buffalo Niagara region is getting revived this week with the hiring of an executive director – Brian McIlroy, from GE Ventures in Albany – although officials acknowledged that the initiative remains years away from reaching its full potential.

Top University at Buffalo officials said the partnership among the university, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, life sciences companies and the New York Genome Center in Manhattan is getting rebooted and will meet the state’s initial job targets, although with a different mix of industry partners and over a longer period of time because of difficulties in scaling up the project.

A key reason the project has taken longer than expected to get started is because Computer Task Group, the largest company partner that pledged to hire 300 workers, has gone through leadership and financial issues in the last two years, requiring the company to scale back its participation, Christina P. Orsi, UB’s associate vice president for economic development, said Tuesday.

“That has evolved,” Orsi said.

McIlroy, who worked in global business development for GE Ventures, will serve as executive director of the Buffalo Institute for Genomics and Data Analytics. UB had been seeking someone from industry for the position.

The new executive director, who started Monday, takes over a center that is half of a partnership meant to develop new ways to treat, prevent and manage serious diseases based on genomic medical research.

“I think the promise – and I think the secret sauce – is going to be the integration of data, genomics and clinical impact,” McIlroy, a native of Scotland who has a Ph.D. in medical biophysics, said in an interview.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in his 2014 State of the State address, pledged $105 million to the project for the sites in Buffalo and Manhattan.

The researchers in Buffalo would use UB’s Center for Computational Research, a powerful supercomputer, to analyze data on behalf of the scientists and physicians at the New York Genome Center, who work with large, complex genome sequences.

The New York Genome Center received $55.75 million from the state and was required to match the grant in funds raised separately, said Kathleen Kearns, a spokeswoman for the center.

The center was able to raise the matching funds and has used more than $50 million of the state grant to pay for a 170,000-square-foot facility and for specialized laboratory equipment required for the genome sequencing, Kearns said in an email.

About $47.5 million of the $50 million that Buffalo is set to receive would pay for an expansion of the UB supercomputer, as well as for lab equipment and other services, Orsi said.

Roswell Park originally was slated to receive $2.5 million; the hospital is not receiving that money but will continue to collaborate with UB and the partnership on genomic projects.

UB has spent $10 million of its funding for the project.

Empire State Development and UB, when asked in February 2014 for a breakdown of the jobs that would be created by the center, could identify only 490. The other 110 would come from companies that hadn’t yet signed on, officials said then.

Thirty-five were to be direct UB hires, and most were from industry partners. The biggest company partner was CTG, whose 300 hires would have doubled the company’s local workforce.

However, James R. Boldt, the company’s CEO, died unexpectedly in October 2014. And the company expects declining profits and revenues for 2016, as its health care customers cut back on spending on information technology projects, including electronic medical records systems. CTG will remain a partner in the project but will not meet its original jobs commitment, Orsi said. “They aren’t the anchor partner that’s going to be creating 300 jobs at this time,” she said.

Brendan M. Harrington, the company’s chief financial officer, did not respond to messages to his office seeking comment Tuesday.

UB will bring in new industry partners, which Orsi said she could not yet identify, to make up the difference.

The other original industry partners – Lineagen, a Utah company that performs genetic evaluations of children who have displayed clinical symptoms of autism and other forms of delayed development; Aesku Diagnostics, a German company that develops tests and instruments to help in diagnosing autoimmune diseases; and Empire Genomics, a Buffalo molecular diagnostics company develops personalized medicine for cancer and other conditions – remain a part of the project, she said.

UB has hired eight of its promised project employees, and the other partners have hired “a handful” of workers, Orsi said. The five-year clock on the jobs commitment is restarting now, Orsi said, and she is more than optimistic that the project will meet its goals of job creation and disease management.

McIlroy quipped that in his second day on the job, he’s simply glad to have learned where the bathrooms are in the institute, known as BIG, which is located in UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

He said that he did not yet know how UB will work with the New York Genome Center but that he will get up to speed on the project and the partners’ roles in the coming months.

“What I’ve seen, from everyone I’ve met over the last two days,” he said, “is a huge amount of enthusiasm.”