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Panel: Talent, Institutional Buy-in Keys To Growing Biosciences In WI

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

[Corrected 9/17/15 1:28 pm. See below.] In a panel discussion on growing the biosciences in Wisconsin, CEOs of four companies emphasized the importance of reeling in top-tier employees and called on institutions, including the state’s legislature and flagship university, to do more for the industry.

The “CEOs Unplugged” panel was part of Wednesday’s Bioscience Summit, an annual conference in Madison organized by BioForward, Wisconsin’s life sciences trade association.

The four chief executives who participated were James Dias of Madison-based Wellbe, Cynthia LaConte of Milwaukee’s Dohmen, Matt Jennings of Hudson-based Phillips-Medisize and Kevin Conroy of Exact Sciences, based in Madison.

Dias, whose company develops software to guide patients through medical treatments and procedures, says “hands down” his biggest challenge after co-founding Wellbe in 2008 was “accessing the best talent available.”

“Healthcare is not for the faint of heart,” he says, and to succeed, it’s necessary to assemble a team that “knows how to duck and dive.”

Leaders in Wisconsin need to make more of an effort to market the fact that many people love living there, says LaConte, whose company aims to ease the burden of disease by connecting scientists and patients.

She pointed to a 2014 study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which ranked the Badger State 10th in quality of life, ahead of California, among other states.

“We have this inferiority complex in this state, and it’s unjustified,” LaConte says. “We have a fantastic quality of life here and we’re not telling that story.”

Attracting talent initially is the hard part, she says, much more so than retaining it. Jennings echoed that sentiment.

“When [people] get here, they love it,” says Jennings, whose company manufactures medical devices and materials for packaging drugs. “The challenge is getting them here.”

Dias says he believes the life sciences can offer employees a stronger sense of purpose than some other currently thriving industries.

“Young people are mission-driven,” Dias says. “There’s an inherent opportunity available to draw young talent into the state based on [our] mission statements.” He says one cohort he’s hoping to lure is “people in their early twenties who are giving up on these flash-in-the-pan things,” like driverless cars or the next hit social media startup.

Conroy, whose company moved from Massachusetts to Wisconsin in 2009 and is best known for making an at-home test to screen for colorectal cancer, says the state has offered fewer tax incentives to the biosciences industry than to sectors like manufacturing and agriculture, even though they’re less effective at creating jobs.

“Life sciences and technology jobs are higher-paying [than other lines of work],” Conroy says. “From a public policy perspective, we want to ask the legislature, ‘Where do you think the growth will come from?’”

Indeed, biosciences “had an average employment multiplier of almost three” in Wisconsin, a job creation rate topped only by the energy industry, according to a report published this week by BioForward. The accounting firm Ernst and Young (EY) contributed research for the report and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC) provided funding so BioForward could contract with EY. [An earlier version of this paragraph incorrectly stated WEDC co-published the 2015 Wisconsin Biosciences Economic Development Report. We regret the error.]

The average salary of a biosciences worker in Wisconsin is $73,241, more than $30,000 above than the state’s average private sector wage, according to the report.

Conroy also listed the University of Wisconsin-Madison, UW Hospital, and the … Next Page »

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