28 Oct Barriers Outlined for Wisconsin’s Biotech Growth
MILWAUKEE, WI. – Research presented at the Wisconsin Economic Summit in Milwaukee suggest that while the biotechnology industry in Wisconsin shows promise, barriers still exist for the sector to reach its full potential.
A study presented by the Wisconsin Association for Biomedical Research and Education (WABRE) identified biotech as a burgeoning growth industry worldwide – and identified Wisconsin as a hotbed of academic research in the field. But commercialization of that research is difficult; the study stressed that economic and cultural barriers exist between the research lab and the boardroom.
“Bioscience in Wisconsin faces numerous challenges, including: funding and investment issues; security issues driven by animal rights and other anti-science terrorism, and local, state, and federal efforts to severely limit or ban promising areas of research,” the WABRE study concluded.
Availability of capital may be easier to fix than cultural and political issues, according to a presentation by Gale Davy, executive director of WABRE.
“I think that our recommendations are obvious,” Davy said. “We need capital expansion – the governor’s plan. Any money that can be leveraged in this area could be very, very helpful.”
Davy likened the biotech industry of 2003 to the personal computer industry of the early 1980s – describing an industry with incredible potential but little understanding among the public. Apart from attracting capital to the state, Davy identified other issues that involve leveraging power with local political bodies and the public. Due to their diffuse nature, these challenges could be harder to deal with.
The housing and management of research animals can not only be a target for radical animal rights activists, but getting local government approval for animal-intensive land uses in an urban setting can be difficult. Davy indicated that Physiogenix, Inc. – located in the Milwaukee County Research Park’s Innovation Center – might have a hard time staying in its current location if it cannot locate a vivarium – or rat housing facility — in the center.
Physiogenix develops and sells specialized research rat models developed through a process of chromosomal substitution. The customized rats help researchers screen potential new drug compounds, study the mechanisms of the disease, and better predict human response.
Other speakers at the conference – held at the Midwest Airlines Center – also pointed to hurdles the biotech industry would have to clear in Wisconsin. At a forum on technology’s growing contribution to the state’s economy, moderated by Sen. Ted Kanavas (R-Brookfield), the panel of biotech executives identified the bumps in the biotech road.
Lance Fors, CEO of Madison-based molecular diagnostics firm Third Wave Technologies Inc., stressed that industry-specific talent is hard to find in the state.
“A critical mass of biotech executive talent does not exist in Wisconsin,” Fors said, adding that for a time, his company relied heavily on a team of executives commuting from out of state.
John Neis, co-founder and senior partner with Venture Investors, LLC., Madison, pointed to a risk-averse culture that prevents capital from flowing to high-risk, long-term propositions like research and biotech product development.
“We need a tolerance for failure in this state,” Neis said. “Someone who has tried and failed will have knowledge and know better how to go about succeeding as a result of that failure. But so many companies here are so thinly capitalized that they can not afford that failure.”
James Prudent, chief science officer with functional genomics company EraGen Biosciences, Madison, points to advances in bioscience development in China and the lack of a major pharmaceutical company in Wisconsin as stumbling blocks.
“If you ask what the difference is between Wisconsin and Nebraska, the answer is the (Milwaukee) Brewers,” Prudent said. “But if you ask what the difference is between Wisconsin and Indiana, it’s Eli Lily.”
Prudent stressed that the presence of a major player in the industry would spin off other companies to help grow the industry in Wisconsin – and would also attract companies that serve as suppliers and consultants.
Chuck Rathmann is a freelance writer and contributor to Wisconsin Technology Network. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.