Montana Public Radio

Bitterroot's New Biotech Company Born From Decade of Prep

Feb 17, 2021

The Bitterroot Valley is welcoming a third biotech company: vaccine-developer Tonix Pharmaceuticals announced its plans to build a facility near Hamilton late last year. But to local officials, it's more than a new company. Tonix is the latest development in a decade-long effort to turn this southwest Montana valley into a biotech corridor.

"The reason it happened quickly is because of all of this tedious work and suffering that has gone on for the past 12 years," Julia Foster said over traffic.

Foster, director of the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority, was standing on a 44-acre field that looks onto the Sapphire Mountains. The property is the proposed build site of Tonix Pharmaceuticals' vaccine development facility, and the New Jersey-based company could open the facility as early as 2022.

Biotech has long had a home in the Bitterroot Valley. Rocky Mountain Laboratories - a research hub overseen by the National Institutes of Health - got its start in the area in the late 1920s. It went on to play a key role in researching Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

In more recent years, local boosters have pushed to expand the biotech industry and make it an increasingly important economic engine.

In 2019, pharmaceutical giant GSK announced its plan to invest $100 million in its vaccine manufacturing site in Hamilton. Tonix outlined its plan to come to the valley last year, spurred by other biotech presences  and by local officials' efforts to entice them.

"Tonix doesn't want to buy land where maybe they can get sewer and water," Foster explained. "They want answers like, 'Yes, and here's the date at which you can begin.'"

The trouble with bringing big companies to small towns is that the area often lacks the infrastructure to support them. There is a law on the Montana books that helps counties borrow money - with the goal of building out that kind of infrastructure to attract businesses. The policy creates a Targeted Economic Development District, or TEDD.

But until recently, the law was not written with some of Montana’s smaller counties in mind according to Foster. It boxed Ravalli County out of the economic development funds. So Foster got the attention of former state Rep. Ed Greef, who agreed.

"So we have a conflict, a giant void between the five or six urban counties, and the rural," he said.

In 2015, Greef carried a bill to change the policy allowing Ravalli and other small counties to tap into the TEDD program. His motivation was clear when he introduced his bill in committee.

"The field of play is not level, not equal for these counties, but they must compete with their neighbors in trying to provide the economic development that will assist and attract business to locate in their area," Greef said.

The bill passed, and now Tonix' new land purchase in Ravalli County is in a new TEDD district. Tonix CEO Seth Lederman said that county infrastructure groundwork, other nearby biotech companies and the Bitterroot Valley itself sold his company on opening its new facility here.

"I think quality of life is very important because recruiting people in biotech is very challenging now," Lederman said. "Everyone is chasing a relatively small talent pool."

The new business development in the Bitterroot comes with more people and more housing, and that could be the next challenge. Hamilton City Planner Matt Rohrbach said like a lot of Montana, the market is tight in Hamilton.

"There's not a lot of supply out there," he said. "We were certainly growing during pre-COVID times, and then COVID amplified that."

Rohrbach's small staff can’t keep up with the number of calls they get from prospective homebuyers and real estate agents. He said the goal is to adapt to new development without Hamilton losing its charm.

Paul Travitz is the executive director for the Ravalli County Council on Aging, an organization that helped the city council come up with the land to sell to Tonix. He said the long effort to develop the region as a biotech corridor is about Ravalli County investing in itself.

"You think about other parts of the state where things just boom, like the oil industry, and then they bust," Travitz said. "You look at biotech. When you look at prolonged sustained growth, those are the things that you want, not just somebody coming in and mining something, or drilling something and packing up and leaving."