10 Apr As BIO shows mass of competition, hunt for partners is on
Chicago — It may have an expo floor to rival any industry trade show, but Doug Tucker didn’t come to BIO Chicago looking to make a sale.
“I don’t expect any of our end-user customers in the form of physicians, etc., to be in attendance,” said Tucker, the CEO of Milwaukee-based Neurognostics said. “This is a probably a better way for us to look at the services side of our business, get to the Pfizers, the Mercks.”
Down the line, pharmaceutical companies like those might be interested in using functional magnetic resonance imaging, Neurognostics’ specialty, as part of their strategy for developing and testing drugs.
And, of course, a company like Neurognostics is always looking for investment. At a show like BIO, which is all about making connections with some of the other estimated 17,000 or more attendees, you never know where the right meeting could lead.
Cheryl Gain, a technology development consultant with the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, said she saw fewer sales-focused presentations at this event than at other trade shows, and more people looking for partnerships.
“They’re here to try to make connections with capital. They’re here to make connections with other partners they can do co-product development with. So it’s more that kind of strategic show,” Gain said.
With that kind of an objective, it will be hard to say whether participation in BIO has been a success until further down the line, when partnerships begin to take shape. From previous BIO conferences and other events, “There are investors, researchers and companies who perhaps had not thought of Wisconsin in the past who are now looking at the state,” said Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.
Those relationships take time to build, but they will be critical as the still relatively young field of biotechnology matures. Investor G. Steven Burrill, in his annual talk on the state of the biotech industry, said the sector is still heating up, and called out ethanol production, among other specialties, as a critical component of tomorrow’s biotech.
Wisconsin’s Agriculture secretary, Rod Nilsestuen, said the state will need to look out around itself to capitalize on the great potential of the Midwest in ethanol and other agriculture-based biotechnology. “In the emerging area of bioindustry … we’re competing with neighboring states, but more realistically I think what we’re doing is, if we’re going to have a real impact, we have to think of it from a regional perspective,” he said.
Competition will be stiff, and the natural advantage of abundant farmland is no guarantee. Already, a company called Iogen in Canada, which exhibited at BIO, is at the beginning stages of commercial production of cellulosic ethanol – ethanol made from plants such as switchgrass, or in Iogen’s case, straw left over from harvesting that might otherwise be plowed under fields. It has made partnerships with companies such as Shell and Petro-Canada.
So Wisconsin and other states are presented a dilemma of local competition versus global competition. Within Wisconsin, communities are trying to decide when and where it is best to group together and march under one banner – leading to initiatives such as a potential Dane County Economic Development Corporation and the branding of seven Milwaukee-area counties together under the Milwaukee 7 name. The same process is playing itself out on the stage of Midwest states versus the Midwest as a region.
At BIO, Wisconsin did not appear on a list of “host region” sponsors, which included Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Kentucky, Ohio, Minnesota, and the city of Chicago.
Even before the conferences are over and the follow-up calls begin, some Wisconsin attendees are gleaning information from other states.
“It’s good to go back and look at what other states are doing,” said Brian Thompson, managing partner at TechStar and an organizer of the Biomedical Technology Alliance in southeast Wisconsin. “For example, Mayo Clinics and the University of Minnesota had a collaborative grant program that we modeled our program after, so we went back to talk to them about the successes of their program. It’s been very successful, the state is going back to fund it again, and it’s resulted in a great deal of collaboration and specifically patented technology.”