23 Aug Does Milwaukee need a life-science spark?
Milwaukee, Wis. – Guy Mascari would very much like to be proven wrong, but he thinks biotechnology may never be anything more than a boutique industry in metropolitan Milwaukee – a component of the economic landscape, but not what drives the economy of southeastern Wisconsin.
Mascari, director of development for Milwaukee County Research Park, said information technology companies are likely to continue their dominance in the park, where they comprise about 70 percent of the tenants. Their presence remains overwhelmingly strong despite efforts to attract the kind of biotech start ups that populate University Research Park in Madison.
Mascari recently took part in a Wisconsin Biotechnology and Medical Device Association panel discussion on research park expansion to accommodate life-science businesses, but he said that will only be done if there is enough demand to justify it. The research park is working with an area developer to construct a new 160,000-square-foot office building, but it will be a flex-space architecture that can accommodate a variety of uses, including life science.
Mascari doesn’t believe in the risky proposition of building speculative lab space for life science companies just to see if he can shake up the present 70-23 percent ratio between IT and biotech. “Research parks, like everything else in economic development, are market driven,” he said. “In our case, the market is in information technology-based companies.”
Even though it has an incubator to make the start-up process easier, the research park is home to only nine life-science companies, four of which have spun off from the nearby Medical College of Wisconsin. The number of research park companies spun out of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which is attempting to raise its research profile, is zero.
Two of the nine have come to Milwaukee from St. Louis, including ZyStor Therapeutics, Inc., which is developing enzyme replacement therapies. ZyStore was lured here with the help of $8.5 million in funding from a syndicate that was led by Mason Wells and Venture Investors and included the State of Wisconsin Investment Board.
Even the presence of a medical imaging giant, a cross between IT and life science, hasn’t changed the equation. GE Healthcare has moved about 2,000 employees from its Waukesha County location to its new $85 million facility in the research park. The research park facility not only contains the firm’s IT department, but it is the global headquarters for two of GE Healthcare’s business divisions, clinical systems and interventional, cardiology, and surgery.
“The success of the research park has had to do with the commercial and industrial base of Milwaukee area, rather than university-based technology transfer,” Mascari stated.
Beer Town untapped
A number of observers have noted that Milwaukee has untapped potential, not the least of which is former UWM research dean Abbas Ourmazd. During his brief tenure, Ourmazd often cited the value of commercializing university research in the development of regional economies. He also touted the quality of research produced by UWM professors, and he pressed for facility upgrades to increase the university’s research output.
Ourmazd, the first person to serve as UWM’s vice chancellor of research, resigned in July, leaving some to wonder about the direction of the university’s Research Growth Initiative. In accepting Ourmazd’s resignation, UWM Chancellor Carlos Santiago noted that building a major research program is more of a marathon than a sprint, one that can be expected to last several years.
Ourmazd was not alone in his assessment of Milwaukee’s life-science potential. Dr. Lou Tornatzky, co-author of a white paper that outlines an innovation strategy for Milwaukee’s economy, said the city has more going for it than several of today’s high-tech havens had when they took their first, tentative steps toward building a knowledge-based economy. Tornatzky, a nationally known advocate of linking urban universities with regional economic development, included in that group the famed Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.
The white paper, titled “An Innovation Economy Strategy for Metro Milwaukee,” recommends that the region spend $165 million over the next five years on several initiatives, including the development of institutional technology transfer programs.
Jon Lebowitz, executive vice president of ZyStor, also was part of the panel on research parks. He said his company would prefer to have more synergistic interaction with employees from other life-science companies, but the lack of similar businesses at the research park isn’t going to make or break the company.
He said it’s not clear that technology transfer can be driven as a top-down process unless there are real incentives in place for faculty, including efforts to relieve them of teaching responsibilities. While he hasn’t done any case histories of other biotech-rich cities, he would guess that each thriving life-science community began with some type of grass roots activity.
Boston, where he worked as a post doctorate in the late 1980s, had one particular advantage. “You couldn’t go many places without running into a prominent scientist,” he said. “There are so many research institutions there. There’s just not that much critical mass here.”
Given the need for funding, employee skills, and employee benefits, Mascari believes it’s a lot harder to form a company than it was 10 years ago, and scientists with degrees have options, he noted. “If you have a chance to go to work with GE or start a company, what would you do?” he asked.
• UWM accepts resignation of research dean
• Innovation expert says Milwaukee has all the tools
• Milwaukee area biotech ZyStor seeks more funding
• GE Healthcare opens facility meant for 2,000 employees