The Wisconsin Biotech Story: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

12/10/12Follow @xconomy

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that will make them yearn for more. And Wisconsin-based companies have done pretty well on this score, too. There has been a solid string of acquisitions over the years that have pumped wealth into the community. Carlsbad, CA-based Life Technologies (NASDAQ: LIFE), Switzerland-based Roche, San Diego-based Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), Marlborough, MA-based Hologic (NASDAQ: HOLX), and Sanofi’s Genzyme unit have all acquired Wisconsin companies.

For those not inclined for the high-risk/high-reward startup life, there are also high-paying, relatively steady jobs where people with advanced bioscience degrees can work. Promega, a lab supplies company based in Madison, has been independent since the late ‘70s, and now claims a respectable $300 million in annual revenue. Covance (NYSE: CVD), PPD, GE Healthcare, and Thermo Fisher Scientific (NYSE: TMO) all have significant branches in Wisconsin. Madison now appears to be growing another important company in Cellular Dynamics International, which UW stem cell pioneer James Thomson co-founded to help disseminate fully functioning human cell lines to researchers. Cellular Dynamics, founded in 2004, now has more than 100 employees.

A strong cluster also needs some degree of collaboration between nonprofit and for-profit institutions. Wisconsin scores well on this count, too. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) has been working to spin out university inventions into the business world for more than 80 years, in order to make sure UW-Madison serves as a source of ideas that can benefit society at large. The state has highly experienced clinical trial sites in Madison, Milwaukee, and Marshfield, and there’s a higher-than-average percentage of citizens here who are willing to participate in clinical trials.

The state biotech association, BioForward, has been working for 25 years on helping stir more biotech growth in Wisconsin. It’s done the usual things, like pushing for tax incentives, recruiting companies from out of state, hosting networking events, and raising the flag at the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s annual convention.

Bryan Renk, the group’s executive director, notes that he’d still like to see more venture capital to support young companies in Wisconsin. And the various perceptions that people have—that Wisconsin’s taxes are high, it’s not “business friendly” and that biotech is bicoastal—don’t help the cause. But without much fanfare, Wisconsin has started to sneak up on people.

“No one is hiring hundreds of people, but everybody’s adding a few,” says Kathy Collins, BioForward’s director of business development. “When you add it all up, it moves the marker. It’s slow, steady growth.”

Stories like this, which tell of gradual change, can be easily overlooked. People today tend to gravitate toward the quick fix. Then again, plenty of economic development officials around the country would be happy with “slow, steady growth.” Slow and steady doesn’t usually make headlines. But Wisconsin is showing that a long-term commitment to fundamental biotech, not necessarily the latest shiny new things, can pay dividends. The tortoise, we should all remember, won that fabled race with the hare.

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