Jul 6, 2022 - Health

The national bidding war for ARPA-H

Illustration of a hand holding a microscope slide with a liquid sample forming a dollar sign.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

An intra-state bidding war has broken out for the chance to house the headquarters of a multibillion-dollar new science agency aimed at curing major diseases — before the agency's structure has even been finalized by Congress.

Why it matters: The Advanced Research Project Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, is a pet project of President Biden's that would focus on breakthrough health care and technology innovations, looking for and funding ways to cure cancer, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and more.

Driving the news: States and cities including Georgia, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Cleveland, Texas and Philadelphia have made or plan to make their cases to the Department of Health and Human Services, many through bipartisan letters from their congressional leaders.

State of play: While the agency's director will report to the secretary of Health and Human Services, the exact structure remains undecided. The Biden administration envisioned ARPA-H as being housed within the National Institutes of Health, in part to leverage existing efficiencies. But a bill the House passed in June would make it a stand-alone agency. The Senate has yet to take up the matter.

  • The agency is being modeled after the Pentagon's research arm, DARPA.
  • Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who sponsored the House bill, sees the agency as "nimble, dynamic and independent," a view echoed by others in Congress who've questioned whether NIH's culture could support a more risk-taking entity.

The big picture: A spokesman for the department told Axios they "have made no commitments as to the physical location of ARPA-H. The decision on its location will ultimately be up to the inaugural Director in consultation with the Secretary."

Yes, but: An inaugural director has yet to be named. Interim director Adam Russell, a veteran of DARPA, started on the job last month.

Zoom in: States and cities have pulled together coalitions of business, nonprofit and political leaders to tout their medical research universities and existing science and technology ecosystems to lay the groundwork for their bids.

  • Georgia's Congressional delegation united to make the case for locating the new agency near the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
  • Texas's delegation wrote that the Lone Star State should land the headquarters since it already houses the largest medical center in the world and the largest military medical complex in the country.
  • Massachusetts pointed out that greater Boston is already home to one of the largest biotech clusters in the world.

What they're saying: "To be quite honest, they're all competing with Massachusetts," MassBio president Joe Boncore told Axios Boston. "When someone asks where ARPA-H should be located, there's really only one answer, and that's right here in the commonwealth."

  • "We have a history of combating global disease and building an infrastructure that’s unique in the nation," Russ Medford, the biotech executive leading the Georgia coalition, told Axios Atlanta, calling it a "match made it heaven."
  • "They're looking for established and thriving biotech centers. How could we not put ourselves in the mix?" Scott Levitan, CEO of North Carolina's Research Triangle Foundation, told Axios Raleigh.

Axios' Zachery Eanes in Raleigh, Steph Solis in Boston and Naheed Rajwani-Dharsi in Dallas contributed reporting to this story.

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