Health care R&D growing in Las Vegas, but more needed

Anthony Rufo, president of HAPPIE Home, demonstrates how Happie Home, a new in-home digital companion, works at his Henderson office on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018. Happie Home is an in-home digital companion and monitor designed for unpaid family caregivers that gives personalized alerts, messages and reminders. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

When Anthony Rufo began preparations to launch his digital companion company HAPPIE Home — a device for caregivers that’s similar to voice assistants like Google Home — he decided Las Vegas would be the perfect location.

“Nevada’s a great place to do business. … It’s remarkably scalable,” he said. “This is where we’re going to do our initial trials with the technology this summer.”

Local experts say the launch of companies like HAPPIE Home exemplify the local health care industry’s growing research and development space. Gillian Barclay, a health care industry specialist at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said the R&D workforce is here; Nevada just needs more companies to keep these workers in-state.

Growing R&D

Local health experts gathered at an event hosted by the GOED and Las Vegas Heals last week to discuss the region’s health care research and development sector.

Zach Miles, a panelist and the associate vice president for economic development at UNLV, said he’s noticed R&D picking up across the local health care space.

“I think the momentum is increasing,” he said. “There (is) a lot of activity in clinical trials, a couple of new startups that haven’t existed here before.”

Barclay said she’s also picked up on this growth. She pointed to new and emerging companies that attended Thursday’s event, from human tissue processing facility to , which was approved for tax abatements by GOED last year.

“We do have that sector here, it’s just that that part of the (health care) sector isn’t as visible,” she said. “One challenge is moving perception away from just physicians and nurses. There are other careers along the pipeline.”

Miles expects to see jobs relating to labs, medical devices, engineering, software, waste disposal and more to grow as health care R&D continues to expand.

“The health care industry, unlike any other, brings together a lot of diverse jobs,” he said.

Those jobs will help diversify Nevada’s economy, Miles said, creating high-salaried positions that can withstand economic downturns.

“When you have economic downturns, the first thing to go is disposable income,” Miles said. “What you usually don’t jettison is your health.”

Workforce needs

Barclay said local academic institutions like UNLV are providing a pipeline of workers, but Nevada lacks enough companies to keep them in-state.

“The problem is, we don’t have the quantity of the industry here to hire the bodies,” she said. “We’re losing the workforce to other states.”

Miles said workforce problems are akin to the “chicken or the egg” scenario: health care R&D-related companies say they don’t want to locate to Las Vegas if the workforce isn’t there, but the workforce won’t grow until more companies settle in the valley.

Panelists said they’ve faced hiring challenges in Southern Nevada. Jeffery Cummings, director of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, said recruiting research assistants and research coordinators for its clinical trials program was no easy task.

“We need individuals who are familiar with clinical trials historically … there are very few such people in Las Vegas and Nevada,” he said. “You have to take a promising person and train them and that takes tremendous time. And as soon as you get them trained, they’re very attractive to the pharmaceutical industry, and so they’re easily recruited usually to a better-paying position”

Cummings said the state needs to produce more employees who are familiar with science.

“I think the workforce challenge is one of the major challenges that we have,” he said. “There is a pathway ahead, but it’s an unequivocal, unmet need right now.”

Miles said UNLV is ready to work with companies to ensure the emerging workforce is ready to take on these new jobs.

“There’s a willingness to work with a company here to build that workforce,” he said. “If they want a certification program, or if (they) want 100 people, we’ll put a program in place here to put that together,” he said.

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Sports’ influence

Las Vegas’ move toward becoming the “sports capital of the world” will bring more health medicine, medical device and pharmaceutical companies to town, said Zach Miles, the associate vice president for economic development at UNLV.

“The local economy is taking advantage of a lot of medical devices and genetics and research that can take place within that industry,” he said. “I think the momentum (in health care research and development) will increase even more.”

Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said the growing sports sector provides opportunities in a wide array of industries, including sports health, nutrition, training and even athletic equipment.

“Sports brings an opportunity in a critical mass in order to be great in sports-related health care, and I think we’re on the road to that,” Hill said. “We have the critical mass of sports care teams here to do that with. And I’m excited about that future.”