Boom In Biotech Jobs Brings Hawaii's Best Home

Ryan Yanagihara
Ryan Yanagihara
Teresa Wong
Teresa Wong

By Joann Shin

(KHNL) - It's been an ongoing battle to keep Hawaii's top graduates from going to the mainland for better job opportunities.

But some say the situation is improving, thanks largely in part to Hawaii's growing biotech industry.

At the Hawaii Biotech labs, scientists work on vaccines for West Nile virus and dengue fever.

"I didn't think I would be back until retirement," explained Ryan Yanagihara, a controller at the Aiea based company.

The Pearl City High graduate spent the past six years in California.

He returned in October to handle finances here.

He says one reason he could return is that state tax incentives have helped investors build up this industry.

"It's helping to bring cutting edge technology, life science companies here and in turn it's going to bring back people like myself who have gone away because they didn't see the opportunities here," said Yanagihara.

Teresa Wong returned last April, after 20 years in California.

She explained, "When you're 21 years old, starting a career, you just killed yourself to get a master's degree, the opportunities are certainly a lot more, a lot more options up on the mainland."

She's now the vice president of Cardax Pharmaceuticals.

"I didn't realize there was a life science industry here that was growing," Wong said.

Critics say while investors get generous tax breaks, there's no telling whether Hawaii is getting a return.

But Wong says she's proof the plan is working.

"This is really a combination of the best of all worlds. It is a stimulating environment, it's an exciting company, it's a team of absolutely world class scientists and it's in Hawaii. It doesn't get better than this!" Wong said.

In 2001, there were 15 people employed at Hawaii Biotech.

Since then, there's been growth.

Two companies have spun off from Hawaii Biotech, including Cardax.

And there's now 60 jobs at the three companies.