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Peoria starts incubator to attract medical-device makers

PEORIA, Ariz. — Alberto Osio said he has a way to help older people see better. His San Diego-based company, Yolia Health, is developing a combination of contact lenses and eye drops that modifies the shape of corneas to produce clearer vision.

But the 5-year-old company has been struggling to get seed funding, network with researchers and obtain Food and Drug Administration approval — challenges that can put a bioscience startup out of business.

Those challenges led Osio and Yolia Health to Peoria, where the West Valley city and two partners have created a bioscience incubator offering up initial funding, mentoring, free office space and access to laboratories.

Yolia Health was one of five companies taking part in BioInspire when the incubator launched in September.

Peoria, which committed $5.5 million to the effort, is working with BioAccel, a nonprofit organization that helps turn bioscience technologies into businesses, and the Peoria-based Plaza Companies, which develops and manages bioscience and medical office properties.

“I hope they’ll succeed, grow, populate our city and provide jobs,” Mayor Bob Barrett said.

Osio, Yolia Health’s CEO, said he was attracted by the incubator’s focus on medical devices.

“It is a unique place for networking and tapping into the valuable resources,” he said.

Products made by other firms in BioInspire include post-surgical recovery garments, dental implants and devices to help patients with heart conditions.

The program offers two levels of funding for its client firms. The first level comes from the city of Peoria and provides grants up to $300,000 to each company. The second level would come from private investors that BioInspire connects with companies.

Participating firms must commit to staying in Peoria for at least five years.

Thomas Rainey, the program’s director, said BioInspire is the first incubator in Arizona geared toward medical-device companies.

“By being that specific, we can really focus our energy and attention to create some synergy around this technology cluster,” Rainey said. “The client companies can serve as a community of entrepreneurs that are assisting each other.”

Supporting bioscience startups is vital for Arizona’s economy because they provide high-paying jobs and boost tax revenues, Rainey said.

“In order to have a healthy economy, we need to be more diversified and have high technology,” he said.

Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap, an effort led by the Flinn Foundation, reported that the number of bioscience firms in Arizona increased from 637 in 2002 to 867 in 2010, while jobs increased from 68,924 to 96,223 during the same period.

One of BioInspire’s mentors is Randal Schulhauser, senior manager of technology and business development for medical-device maker Metronics Inc. He said firms getting into the capital-intensive and tightly regulated medical-device market benefit from a helping hand.

“Getting a program like BioInspire to support these companies in their formative years will dramatically increase their chance to succeed and encourage new startups in this emerging market,” Schulhauser said.