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Wisconsin biotech sector featured in scientific magazine

Schools, tech transfer and government cited as major advantages

MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin’s biotechnology community is once again in the limelight thanks to feature appearing in the June issue of Modern Drug Discovery. The article examines Wisconsin’s growing biotech clusters in Madison and Milwaukee, and attributes the growth to a variety of factors, including the state’s colleges and universities, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, local and state government initiatives and lifestyle.

“I think that it is a very accurate representation of what we have going here, particularly in Madison. It was a well-balanced article and a good reflection of what’s in our area,” said Tom Schwei, vice president of DNASTAR. “Anytime a scientific publication cares to focus on our state like this it’s wonderful.”

The article praised Wisconsin’s academic institutions for boosting the state’s life sciences through education and research but placed special emphasis on the technology transfer capacities of the schools. The opportunities available to companies through Wisconsin’s colleges and universities were said to foster entrepreneurship and successful businesses.

WARF, which patents technology developed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was also heralded as a major catalyst behind Wisconsin’s emerging biotech space. By offering a helping hand to companies, WARF works to provide support, both financially and otherwise, to companies throughout their lifespan.
“We were a spinout, our technology was licensed though WARF and WARF did take an equity position. In that regard we are very similar to other startups here,” said Alex Vodenlich, president of GenTel BioSurfaces, on WARF’s influence on his and other local biotech companies.

Programs developed at a state level are working, along side Wisconsin’s learning institutions and technology transfer organizations, to give biotech companies within the state an edge, the article stated. The Wisconsin Technology Council and the Wisconsin Biotechnology and Medial Devices Association were recognized for working to pump capital and vitality into the biotech space.

In addition, federal research grants, Gov. Jim Doyle’s “Grow Wisconsin” initiative and other sources of in-state funding were named by the piece as ways Wisconsin is growing and keeping biotech companies in the state.

“The federal grants are exceptionally important to continue the success in biotech in Wisconsin and in Madison. Most, if not all, early stage biotech companies rely on some extent on grant funding for survival,” Schwei said. “I think it’s a little early to evaluate some of Gov. Doyle’s programs, but his focus on biotech and the interest he has taken in promoting biotech companies is very helpful and important.”

The article noted Wisconsin’s general lack of unpleasant traffic conditions, close proximity to Milwaukee and Chicago and Midwest work ethic as contributing factors to the Dairyland’s unique and attractive lifestyle but also alluded to Madison’s lack of direct flights and isolation from either coast as disadvantages.

Related to that work ethic is a conservative approach to biotechnology, as evidenced by Wisconsin’s reliance on supplies and services, as compared to the riskier drug discovery sector. The article suggested that despite this stigma, the culture of the area is changing, embracing riskier – and more profitable – markets.

“Changing such a cultural characteristic is not going to happen overnight,” Vodenlich said. “The point is, why would I leave a good job and go to work and put family at risk financially? There are lots of personal decisions there.”

Schwei acknowledged the advantages and disadvantages of growing a biotech business in the Madison and Milwaukee area but overall, remained optimistic.

“There are certainly challenges for Madison to become true center of biotechnology in the state and world,” Schwei said. “Madison has enough advantages where it can grow into be a major player in biotech. UW, WARF, a growing community of biotech companies, entrepreneurs, venture capital, we have right ingredients to grow and be successful.”

Modern Drug Discovery is a monthly publication focusing on drug discovery, product development, R&D management and related issues. Its circulation nationwide is 40,100.

Kristin V. Johnson is the Associate Editor of WTN. She can be reached at

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