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Pitt Hyde and the Biotech Project

Pitt Hyde and the Biotech Project

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Will Pitt Hyde's successful prostate operation someday be mentioned in the same breath with Fred Smith's Yale term paper as an icon of Memphis and American business history?

At the least, Hyde's medically induced mid-career change holds a lot of promise for the redevelopment of downtown and the Medical Center.

The Memphis Biotech Foundation, which Hyde chairs, says it is "creating the next FedEx," starting with the demolition of the old downtown Baptist Hospital this year and construction of a six-story biotechnology research facility next year. If it comes together, the research center will dress up a big piece of vacant real estate and the surrounding area, which looks lame compared to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville and the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

Talk about great expectations. The foundation's own consultant cautions that "biotechnology development is a marathon not a sprint." Anyone else making that FedEx claim would be laughed at, but Hyde will and should be taken seriously.

A classmate of Smith's at Memphis University School 45 years ago, he is the founder of AutoZone, one of the two Fortune 500 companies in Memphis along with FedEx. He is also one of the minority owners of the Memphis Grizzlies and was the quiet but determined point man for the push to build the FedExForum.

Ten years ago, Hyde was the chief executive of AutoZone. Then he discovered he had prostate cancer. He and his wife Barbara were parents of young children. Suddenly, auto parts didn't seem so important. Hyde stepped aside and began undergoing treatment at the same time he was immersing himself in the literature of prostate cancer and efforts to cure it.

Then, good news. He got better. In middle age, he found himself changing careers. He had time, energy, several million dollars, and duty called.

Along with Jack Belz and Henry Turley, he has been one of downtown's most important boosters. He was a supporting player to Smith and John Tigrett in the drive to build The Pyramid and chairman of the board of the National Civil Rights Museum. He made the decision to build AutoZone's corporate headquarters downtown. When the Grizzlies and owner Michael Heisley came knocking, Hyde and a few others answered.

Hyde's patient, nonconfrontational style helped shepherd the financing plan for the FedExForum through the Shelby County Commission and Memphis City Council. Hyde rarely missed a public hearing and refused to be baited by skeptical elected officials. When asked once about owners putting "hard" dollars into the deal, he said, "They're very hard to us."

The biotech dream is several years and several million dollars worth of hard losses away. A Memphis company called GTx went public last week. It will look for a drug to treat prostate cancer. It has lost $145 million and has no revenues and doesn't expect any for a few years. If you have the nerve, you can buy a piece of the dream from your stockbroker for $12.50 a share, which is a discount off the $16 offering price.

Minneapolis and other cities and philanthropists are creating biotech industries, or the next FedEx, if you will. Biotech's forerunner, the Biomedical Research Zone, is a synonym for bust in the history of Memphis downtown redevelopment.

That could partly explain the lukewarm media reception given to last week's announcement featuring Hyde, the governor, both mayors, and two university presidents. Even before the speeches were over, several reporters and cameramen took off after Mayor Herenton to get his take on the latest crisis at City Hall.

The media live on red meat, not promises. But call when it's time to blow up the hospital, which will make a cool picture. We'll believe the biotech center when we see it.

The man who created AutoZone and beat prostate cancer says we will.

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