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Under Lisa Johnson, BioForward Embraces Health IT and Regional Unity

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

Drugs and medical devices have long been the strengths of Wisconsin’s high-tech healthcare businesses, but the rising star during the past few years has been the Badger State’s emerging digital health sector.

Lisa Johnson recognizes that trend, and she made it a priority after she took over BioForward Wisconsin, the state’s flagship life sciences trade group, a year ago. She broadened the purview of her organization’s mission to support healthcare IT firms, who are driving much of Wisconsin’s growth in startups and venture funding—particularly in and around the state capital of Madison.

That was one of my takeaways from a conversation this week with Johnson about her first year on the job. Johnson took over BioForward during a time of leadership upheaval. She was the organization’s second new CEO appointed in a seven-month period. Johnson joined BioForward after spending more than four years as the vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. Before that, she spent about 22 years in business development leadership roles at Madison-area life sciences companies.

Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson

Our chat touched on her agenda at BioForward, the challenges facing the state’s life sciences and healthtech industries, and how she’s trying to foster more collaboration between Madison, Milwaukee, and the rest of the state. Here are the highlights of our discussion:

Xconomy: You’ve been at the helm of BioForward for a year. What’s your assessment of the state of Wisconsin biotech right now?

Lisa Johnson: I think it’s very strong. I think you might be seeing my messaging, especially with our website—we’ve transformed our messaging to say “biohealth.” We did not think that biosciences, biotech, life sciences really encompassed what Wisconsin is really known for now and where our strengths are going forward, which is in the health IT sector and medical devices. So although we’re very well known in the biosciences—I still love that term, that’s my background. We’re strong in the research universities. We don’t abandon that; it just becomes another component. These terms are converging.

The other thing we’re really promoting that I think Wisconsin has over so many other states is when we combine it with our supply chain and our manufacturing facilities, that flow into medical devices, diagnostics, and into companies like Promega. … We have a lot going for us in what I’m calling biohealth that encompasses so many other things than just the biosciences.

X: What’s the biggest fire you had to put out in your first year?

LJ: The fetal tissue bill. That [answer] was easy. [Editor’s note: Some Republican state lawmakers introduced a bill that would have outlawed certain research involving tissue from aborted fetuses. Opponents said it would hinder potentially life-saving medical research and cause life sciences companies to leave Wisconsin. The bill was not passed.]

And I think one of the most important things and one of the most valuable efforts that BioForward did … was protecting research in the state of Wisconsin. Many other states were not able to achieve that. They went down a different path. In Wisconsin, we protected it. It wasn’t just BioForward, it was a consortium under Cures for Tomorrow.

X: Are you concerned similar legislation might resurface?

LJ: It certainly could resurface. I would say taking a critical look at BioForward, we just have to be very aggressive early and do a better job educating. We continue to need to improve in that area, and that is a major focus for us and our advocacy efforts.

That’s why I bring up the manufacturing with you. I think we can tell a lot of stories on how we are interconnected. Bigger cities, the rest of the state—they don’t find ways to see how we’re all connected. I think BioForward can do a better job showing how we’re connected, like with the supply chain. We didn’t tell legislators that story. They’re really just reactive.

We have a lot of support in that legislature, both parties, that want to see this industry succeed. They understand it’s high wages; they understand the economic impact. Now, I need to give them more information of what’s going to be an even greater impact on the future and how [biohealth] affects the rest of the state, not just Madison and Milwaukee.

X: You recently opened a satellite office in the Milwaukee area. Are there any plans to boost your presence in other parts of the state?

LJ: I think that will be at least a year off. I think we have to continue to solidify the Madison-Milwaukee connection. We did just open that office in February. But you’re right, I certainly have an interest [in working with other parts of the state], and it’s really then working with that supply chain manufacturing sector—how do we represent that?

The reality is we’re not as likely to have biohealth companies all over the state. It’s probably going to be more in that supply chain area, which is great. It’s a part of it.

Right now our major focus is southeast Wisconsin and really building that membership and proving how we can get these two parts of our state—we’re a small state, but boy, we’re isolated. It’s just not powerful if we say only Madison or only Milwaukee. We’re just not big enough.

X: What’s the biggest challenge facing Wisconsin life sciences right now?

LJ: I think a lot of it is … Next Page »

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