Wisconsin shouldn’t squander biotech opportunity

Wisconsin’s technology industry is often compared unfavorably with the tech-based economy in Minnesota, a state with more venture capital investments, more college graduates and a long history of spinning out entrepreneurial companies. For the most part, our Minnesota envy is justified – but not when it comes to biotechnology.

Twice in recent months, Minnesota biotech leaders have been quoted in Twin Cities’ publications as saying, in essence, "Forget California and Massachusetts – we need to be more like Wisconsin." They pointed to Wisconsin’s research institutions, its process for patenting and licensing biotech innovations, and its ability to place start-up companies in settings such as the University Research Park in Madison.

It’s not just the folks in Minnesota who are noticing. Recently, a delegation from Florida toured Madison to find out why biotechnology is flourishing in Wisconsin’s capital city but has yet to establish roots in Tallahassee, another state capital and university town. The Florida delegation left impressed by what they saw – and maybe a bit daunted by what it would take to compete.

Whether it’s the latest Forbes magazine "Best Places for Business" ratings or articles such as the recent review in Genetic Engineering, Wisconsin is getting some well-deserved press as a place for life science businesses to start and grow. That message was repeated often when a delegation from Wisconsin attended the world’s largest biotechnology conference in San Francisco.

The annual Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) convention is a gathering of the life sciences’ tribes from across the globe, a massive meeting of 18,000 or so researchers, company representatives, economic development experts and government officials. A tour of the exhibit hall can literally take days, as examples of the best in science and technology are displayed from virtually every country and many states.

The Wisconsin pavilion, to be honest, was relatively modest compared with most state exhibits in the hall. In fact, some states spend more on their BIO exhibit than Wisconsin does in an entire year on its major tech development arms. That’s because Wisconsin, for all of its life science attributes, still has a way to go before it catches the big boys.

When the 2004 industry report was released in San Francisco, it once again showed that states such as California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland and Colorado are leaders in spinning out biotech businesses. It also showed that other Midwest states, such as Missouri, Michigan and Indiana, have biotechnology assets that at least rival those in Wisconsin.

While that’s no reason for despair, it’s a reminder that Wisconsin’s recent bragging rights must be placed in perspective. The competition in life sciences is intense, and it is global as well as nationwide. Those states, regions and communities with the right ingredients will prosper; those that lack key elements will fall by the wayside.

A survey by the Wisconsin Association for Biomedical Research and Education showed there are 248 life sciences companies in Wisconsin with about 19,000 total employees. About one-third of those companies have emerged in the last five years. In the University Research Park alone, there are 107 companies with 4,000 employees that average $60,000 per year in salaries. What are the elements that built and attracted those jobs?

In a just-released publication by the Wisconsin Technology Council, the answer is: Many things. A history of biotech innovation in Wisconsin leading back to the 19th century, institutions such as the UW-Madison, the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Marshfield Clinic and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and the leadership of many other individuals and organizations over time have combined to produce the right climate. The investment didn’t come overnight; it happened over time.

Other states may throw hundreds of millions at building a biotech infrastructure in a few short years, but it’s likely to be those states that already have a strong base – and the commitment to keep it – that will compete.

Wisconsin has what it takes to be a leader in the life sciences, if it doesn’t squander what most other states covet.

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. This column originally was published by WisBusiness.com, a Madison-based business news media partner of Small Business Times.

July 9, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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