Tom Still: Wisconsin can shine in biotech world, even among giants


By Tom Still
June 20, 2005

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – In 1996, the last time the Biotechnology Industry Organization held its international convention in Philadelphia, about 3,700 people attended. A decade later, BIO expects at least 18,000 convention-goers to descend on the City of Brotherly Love.

As much as city officials here may claim it’s all about their sprawling convention hall and other civic improvements, the size of the BIO 2005 crowd says much more about the growth of the global biotech industry.

It also speaks to the need for Wisconsin to stay competitive in a field where standing out from a very large crowd is not just beneficial, but essential.

Companies and delegations from 61 nations and 48 states will gather in Philadelphia for the annual BIO convention, which began in 1993 with about 1,400 people in Raleigh, N.C., and has grown like cells in culture.

This year’s gathering, in addition to drawing celebrities such as Arnold Palmer and Melissa Etheridge, will feature 24 session tracks, 180 panels and 900 speakers and panelists. If it’s happening in biotech, you can learn more about it here.

From Taiwan to Israel, and from Norway to Singapore, virtually every nation with expertise in biotech will be represented in the exhibit hall. Wisconsin’s pavilion, for example, is positioned near Austria, Florida and Malaysia.

The Badger state’s 60-member delegation represents about three-dozen companies and organizations, a fraction of the 1,525 exhibitors in the hall.

Is the Wisconsin exhibit a syringe in a high-tech haystack? In some ways, that’s true. It’s hard to compete with exhibits from some of the largest biotech states, which often spend more on this three-day convention than Wisconsin spends on tech promotion in a year.

Also, the major beneficiary of the convention is likely to be companies in the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware region, which is already rich with bio-pharmaceutical firms.

But it’s also a convention that Wisconsin cannot afford to miss. With increasing attention being paid to the potential of human embryonic stem cell research, Wisconsin is known as the state where Professor James Thomson pioneered such research.

Only a few states are likely to emerge as stem-cell leaders, and Wisconsin can be among them – provided state lawmakers abandon their crusade to crimp research and dull one of the state’s competitive edges.

Another pavilion draw will be plans for the UW-Madison’s Institute for Discovery, a $375-million facility that will house interdisciplinary research programs from the Madison campus and beyond.

The Institute for Discovery may well be a national prototype for a series of “discovery-innovation institutes” under review by the National Academies, the nation’s leading scientific advisory group.

Wisconsin also comes to this convention amid a burst of press attention to its research base, business advantages and quality of life. A year ago, Forbes magazine ranked Madison No. 1 on its annual “best places for business and careers” list and placed other Wisconsin cities relatively high.

This year, Madison made the Forbes Top 10 again. A recent report in Inc. magazine listed three Wisconsin cities in its top 40 places to do business; that was more listings than the rest of the Midwest combined.

The July edition of The Scientist magazine is expected to carry a story focusing on Madison as a biotech hotbed, and recent developments in Milwaukee are building a reputation for biotech growth at the Medical College of Wisconsin, the UW-Milwaukee and Marquette University.

Wisconsin is also a leading state in agricultural biotech research and development, something that will grow in importance as the nation considers how to best protect and steward food supplies, water supplies and possible bio-fuel resources.

Other states may throw more money into their BIO pavilions, but the investment in biotech in Wisconsin goes back more than a century. The commitment to keeping that base strong, and telling our story effectively in forums such as the BIO convention, is vital.

Next year, BIO comes to Chicago, the first time the convention has been held in the Midwest. It will offer Wisconsin another chance to shine – this time, much closer to home.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.