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Hans Koepsell, Deseret News
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, meets with reporters and members of the editorial board at the Deseret News and KSL in Salt Lake City, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY — Finding cures and treatments for diseases is an expensive proposition that is often taken on by small, innovative companies in the biosciences industry being funded in part by government grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Last month, President Donald Trump's preliminary budget proposal indicated funding for the agency could be cut by as much as 20 percent, prompting concern from many firms in Utah's burgeoning bioscience sector.

On Wednesday, leaders from a few of those Utah-based companies hosted a roundtable event with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to discuss the importance of supporting continued research and development in the innovative and economically impactful industry.

"We had a chance to discuss what was important to our industry, in particular how we're growing well-paying jobs in our state," explained Chris Gibson, co-founder and CEO of Recursion Pharmaceuticals, a Salt Lake City-based drug discovery company located at the University of Utah Research Park.

The hope was to point out what key elements of federal policy could help the industry in its effort to grow, Gibson added.

The "core" topic of discussion was the continued need for financial support through National Institutes of Health grants that have been a cornerstone of funding for a number of life science startups in the Beehive State for many years, he said.

"The majority of companies that have been successful or growing in the life sciences space in Utah came out of academic research that was funded by (the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation)," Gibson said.

Now-successful companies such as Recursion, BioFire, Myriad Genetics and Tolero Pharmaceuticals all developed out of the University of Utah startup incubation system, which received sources of federal grant funding, he said.

"We also spoke to the small-business grants that allow companies to get through that 'valley of death' — that early proof-of-concept stage where many companies struggle to survive," Gibson said. "The couple of million dollars that we brought in from public finds from the (National Institutes of Health) have now been leveraged tenfold in private investment."

The roundtable was organized by BioUtah, an independent, nonprofit trade association serving the state's life science industry. Following the closed-door meeting, Lee said he was impressed by the work being done by local firms in the bioscience sector.

"It's indicative of a lot of innovation that occurs in Utah," he said. "The important work that they do needs to be taken into account in anything (Congress does). The fact that people's lives are at stake and some programs have a profound influence on people suffering from diseases has to be taken into account."

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​Ron Alfa, vice president of Discovery and Product for Recursion, said without government funding sources, innovation would be signficantly affected to the long-term detriment of society.

"Companies can be founded on federal funds even before they can go out and fundraise from investors. A lot of these funds help companies to validate their (business and research) approaches to prove that their technology works so they can go out and get money from investors," Alfa said.

"It's really important to continue to fund both science and the business of innovation and science through (small-business and research grants)," he said.