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CellCura could start an invasion of stem cell firms

Madison, Wis. - The first segment of a national and international pipeline to Wisconsin might have been put in place with the announcement that CellCura, Inc., a Norwegian biotechnology and stem cell research company, will be opening a location in Madison's University Research Park.

CellCura, the fourth stem cell company to start or locate in Wisconsin during the past two years, chose Madison following an international search and will open in Madison with a small team of key employees. The company is focused on stem cell research and the development of clinical equipment and products for Assisted Reproductive Technology, which involves fertility treatments.

CellCura has been working closely with scientists at Madison's WiCell Research Institute for the last several months, and cited the need to be in close proximity to WiCell. The institute houses 13 of the 21 federally funded stem cell lines and is home to the national's only stem cell bank.

Wisconsin biotechnology representatives seized on the announcement as proof that the state has a great deal to offer stem cell research firms.

The first three stem cell companies, including two started by University of Wisconsin-Madison stem cell researcher Jamie Thompson and one co-founded by former WiCell director Beth Donley and UW-Madison scientist Gabriela Cezar, were launched from within. CellCura is the first company to be lured from outside Wisconsin.
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“I think a new critical mass of stem cell companies is happening in Madison, and that was one of the reasons why they came here, because of the proximity to the research and the other companies that are here,” said Jim Leonhart, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Biotechnology and Medical Device Association. “I think it opens the door for other possibilities for companies to come in.”

Destination Wisconsin

Dag Dvergsten, president of CellCura, said the company is confident that its collaboration with WiCell would lead to a number of dedicated products that will be useful for stem cell scientists worldwide. Given the company's work with WiCell, he said it would have an opportunity to obtain “unique information about the specialized needs of the stem cell research community.”

CellCura, with a little prodding from former U.S. embassador to Norway and Wisconsin legislator Tom Loftus, also chose Madison because of its overall quality of life and accessibility to stem cell researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Gov. Jim Doyle, who has repeatedly called Wisconsin “the birthplace of stem cell research,” said the state has plenty to offer stem cell companies interested in relocating. Among other things, CellCura could benefit from a license agreement with WiCell for the rights to stem cell technology developed by Jamie Thomson, who started two stem cell companies in October with the help of state grants.

With predictions of a $10 billion national stem cell market resulting in 100,000 new jobs during the next decade, the state has established a goal of capturing 10 percent of the stem cell market by 2015.

It has launched a $750 million initiative to develop stem cell research and biotechnology, the centerpiece of which is the construction of the Institutes for Discovery on the UW-Madison campus.

The state also has created financial incentives to lure stem cell companies. The most recent step was an agreement with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation in which companies conducting research at non-profit and academic institutions in Wisconsin receive a free, non-exclusive research license under the stem cell patents held by WARF for sponsored research.

Those companies, however, would still have to pay royalty fees to WARF for that research. (An earlier version of this story incorrectly noted that they would not have to pay royalties to WARF, but in fact any company, regardless of location, that makes or sells a product using WARF patents would require a commercial license that includes royalty payments.)

Scientific advantage

Although WARF's stem cell patents are being challenged before the United States Patent and Trademark Office, Doyle said the agreement would give the state a significant competitive advantage over California and other states attempting to commercialize stem cell research.

John Neis, senior partner in the Madison-based venture capital firm Venture Investors, noted that California has invested $3 billion in stem cell research, yet Wisconsin is doing more to lure and create stem cell companies.

Neis cited the state's scientific talent as its main competitive advantage. “We have here at UW-Madison the largest concentration of scientists working on stem cell research anywhere in the world,” Neis said. “While places like California are throwing money around, we have the talent pool here to really make this happen.”

Related stories

UW scientist, former WiCell director found stem cell company

Researcher wants to commercialize adult stem cell discovery

State puts up $1 million for James Thomson's new stem cell startup

WARF stem cell patents to be re-examined

Doyle, WARF announce partnership to lure stem cell companies

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