Gov. Jan Brewer was in Oro Valley on Tuesday to tour two of the area’s biggest biotech employers, and she came away impressed.

The governor was noncommittal, however, on the prospect of increasing state support of the University of Arizona and the state’s two other universities — seen by many as a key to growth in the biosciences sector.

Brewer attended a meeting of a biosciences executive group hosted by Mara Aspinall, president of Ventana Medical Systems/Roche, and later toured Ventana’s manufacturing facility.

Founded by a UA pathologist in the mid-1980s to commercialize an automated tissue-staining technology, Ventana was acquired by Swiss drug giant Roche AG in 2008 for $3.4 billion. The company has expanded its campus and branched out into specialized gene testing for breast cancer and other diseases.

Brewer later toured the Oro Valley drug-development center of Sanofi, another UA spinoff and a neighbor of Ventana’s in Oro Valley’s Innovation Park.

“It’s absolutely so impressive to know we have these scientists and people who are concerned with solving these terrible issues that affect each and every one of us — all the way from unknown diseases to the one we all know, cancer,” Brewer said.

The governor acknowledged that the universities play an important role in training scientists. But Brewer said she’s sticking to a proposed state budget that would keep university budgets essentially flat.

“We absolutely know that high-skilled employees are very, very important to fill these positions that these manufacturers and scientists all need,” Brewer said. “We will continue to work with the universities — of course, I’ve always been a big supporter of the tech centers and the research centers at our facilities.”

“The bottom line is, our budget is pretty prudent,” she said. “We had a plan, and Arizona’s come a long way in a short period of time, and I think if we keep to that plan we will be successful.”

Ken Wertman, Sanofi vice president and site research director, said that during a private tour he showed Brewer the company’s lab complex and told her about the site’s core research in early-stage drug discovery, which is rooted in “combinatorial chemistry” methods invented by UA researchers in the late 1980s.

Sanofi’s major focus is on drugs to treat cancer and rare genetic diseases, including Duchenne muscular dystrophy and neuromuscular disorders, Wertman said.

“I think probably the most important message that I was able to deliver was that growing biotechnology is about supporting local research,” Wertman said. “You can’t really attract biotech companies — they’re always born where they’re conceived.”

Wertman said the most effective way to boost bioscience development is to support the university research and efforts to commercialize it, adding that the UA’s new Tech Launch Arizona commercialization initiative is a big step in the right direction.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at or 573-4181.

Senior reporter covering business and technology for the Arizona Daily Star/