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Biotech Alliance pushes ahead in SE Wisconsin with likely state funding

A drive to unite the research efforts of southeast Wisconsin received a boost late last week with an approved proposal for $2.5 million in research capital.

The Legislature's Joint Committee on Finance voted 15-1 to provide funding to the Biomedical Technology Alliance, an organization of five universities encouraging collaboration in southeast Wisconsin. The funding, proposed by Senator Ted Kanavas of Brookfield, will go to the state legislature to be approved with the final budget.

"The BTA will create a framework where grants can be worked on by multiple universities, creating a greater whole," Kanavas said. He estimated that the funding will attract matching dollars from universities and independent businesses, increasing the alliance's resources to around $10 million.

This money will be used by the BTA to encourage collaboration between its five members: the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Medical College of Wisconsin, Marquette University, University of Wisconsin-Parkside and the Milwaukee School of Engineering. The alliance will use the money to further its goals of university research, providing grants to researchers and supporting spin-off companies.

The Medical College and UW-Madison announced a plan to collaborate on tech transfer. Read more.
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David Gilbert, special aide to UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Carlos Santiago, said the BTA is an effort to guide the economy of Wisconsin from industrial to research-based pursuits. Since the organization was founded in 2004, it has tried to bring together the researchers so they can undertake bigger projects and find "critical mass" to apply for grants.

The organization is focused on making sure the research stays in the region rather than pushing it out to other parts of the country. William Hendee, dean of the Medical College of Wisconsin, said when Wisconsin entrepreneurs license a technology outside of the state it takes away jobs and creates an "idea drain" in research fields.

An organization like BTA helps provide a framework for these researchers to fall back on, as well as giving them an opportunity for further funding. Hendee cited that similar partnerships between the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota have been beneficial to the state and allowed researchers to flourish.

"We want to capture the ideas that capitalize off the ideas in SE Wisconsin, rather than capitalizing them to the real world," Hendee said. "One of the things in very short supply in Wisconsin is money that has the potential to develop new ideas."

BTA focuses closely on three areas of growing research in the area: medical imaging, health-related informatics and rehabilitative engineering. They have sponsored several networking seminars between the five universities revolving around these topics and are forming partnerships with GE Healthcare and Aurora Healthcare.

The organization has also moved outside the southeastern region, building loose ties with similar groups in the Madison area. Hendee said they have had meetings with the Wisconsin Biotechnology and Medical Device Association, and work with the medical school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

However, the group's focus is on strengthening the resources in southeast Wisconsin, rather than expanding into new areas. "We're happy to develop ties, but our interests are always in this area," Hendee said.

As part of the effort to keep research in the region, BTA has pushed for the expansion of the existing research park in Milwaukee so start-up companies have more places to set up shop. The group was also involved in the establishment of the Wisconsin Institute of Biomedical and Health Technologies, a collaborative environment for UW-Milwaukee and Medical College researchers.

Gilbert said that ultimately BTA would like to see all of the scientists and lab research in the region united under one roof, but creating a campus like that is no more than a vision at this point.

Right now, the organization will focus on getting the researchers every advantage it can, bringing their work to the regional eye and getting them the funding they need.

Brian Thompson, managing partner of TechStar, a consulting firm which was involved in the establishment of the BTA, said that since BTA is at its heart an academic organization the best thing they can do is provide the right setting. "What you need to do is bring scientists together into a large group and let them find each other," he said.

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