By Brian E. Clark
In the upper Midwest, modesty is considered a virtue.
But in the competitive world of stem cell research, not tooting your own horn enough can be counterproductive.
That, in a nutshell, is why the five-year-old WiCell Research Institute on the UW-Madison campus has hired an international public relations firm and its Cambridge, Massachusetts biotech arm to tell the world about WiCell’s stem cell work.
“This is a recognition that we need to do a better job of getting the word out about the stem cell research that the university and WiCell has done and is doing,” said Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, WiCell’s parent organization.
“We are the leaders in this area and people need to know that,” Gulbrandsen said. “Unfortunately, once you get outside Madison, a lot of people don’t seem to understand the quality of the work we do here.”
The company hired to publicize WiCell is Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide. Its biotech division is Feinstein Kean Healthcare. Ogilvy was one of five firms interviewed by WARF leaders and board members. They declined to say what Ogilvy will be paid for its year-long contract.
“We are competing against California, which voted last fall to spend $3 billion on stem cell research,” Gulbrandsen said.
“We need to proactive in this area,” he added. “Frankly, I don’t think we have a choice. We can’t do it ourselves, so we have hired pros.”
WARF licenses patents from UW-Madison creations. Since its founding in 1925, the private, non-profit organization has given $750 million to the university for research and other programs.
WiCell was created in 1999, a year after UW-Madison scientist James Thompson first isolated and reproduced human embryonic stem cells. WiCell, which is a non-profit, provides training and stem cells for research purposes to scientists all over the world.
WiCell scientists, lead by Thomson, do basic research that they hope will eventually lead for treatments to ailments such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and heart disease by replacing damaged cells with healthy ones.
When Californians last fall passed Prop. 71, which will pump $300 million a year into stem cell research over the next decade, many in Wisconsin feared Thomson might be lured away.
This step by WiCell to trumpet his work is another indication the university and WARF want him to stay.
Thomson deepened his ties to Madison recently when he and some of his WiCell colleagues announced a biotech business in the University Research Park that will use stem cells to screen drugs. The company is called Cellular Dynamics International.
Gulbrandsen said it has been frustrating for him, members of WARF’s board and WiCell trustees to read articles in major publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal about stem cell research in California and Massachusetts, especially when those stories fail to mention Wisconsin.
“I think perhaps because of our Midwestern culture that we have been too humble about things and that can be our own worst enemy,” he said. “If we want to attract world-class people here and enhance our reputation, we have to do more.
“That is why we have hired this top PR company,” he said.
Ogilvy also may be called on to dispute disparaging remarks and news reports that reflect badly on WiCell.
Though he did not explicitly criticize WiCell, UW-Madison officials were incensed earlier this year when a Harvard researcher, Douglas Melton, ripped existing stem cell lines.
Harvard will be starting its own stem cell research institute and Melton has developed 17 new embryonic stem cell lines.
In published reports, Melton said the existing lines were difficult to obtain, unreliable and often did not grow in the lab. WiCell distributes stem cells to more than 200 researches around the world.
WiCell officials called Melton’s charges “ridiculous,” but they were repeated around the nation and globe.
WiCell also often finds itself caught in political skirmishes. Some conservatives – including a few in the Wisconsin Legislature – want to ban the use of stem cells for research because they believe extracting stem cells from embryos destroys human life.
Tom Pyle, who serves on both the WARF and WiCell boards, said he agreed wholeheartedly with the decision to hire Ogilvy. He said the WiCell board vote was unanimous.
“We want to do a better job of impacting public opinion, government officials and the research commuity,” he said.
“We also want to make sure the information put out there is accurate,” said Pyle, a former CEO of Rayovac. He now heads the Pyle Group.
“The strength of our message is the strength of the research that Jamie (Thomson) and others are doing, WiCell’s capabilities and the great science being done at UW-Madison.”
Heather Kowalski, a senior vice president with Feinstein Kean Healthcare, said her company specializes in dealing with life science subjects. She began working with WiCell last month.
“Clearly, we are in an era where stem cells are in the news every day,” she said. “They are the topic of a lot of discussion and some confusion out there.
“I’m not sure you can say Wisconsin is being overlooked, but there is only so much that can be reported on,” she said. “That makes it all the more reason for WiCell, WARF and UW-Madison to have a clear voice out there.”
She said Ogilvy and Feinstein Kean will seek to publicize all of WiCell’s work.
“There is a lot of depth and breadth at WiCell, everything from distributing stem cell lines to running training programs to new research,” she said. “It’s a big story to tell.”
Andy Cohn, who has been handling media and government relations for both WARF and WiCell, said the addition of Ogilvy means he now has staff to help give WiCell the credit it deserves.
“We believe what California totally understands, what Illinois is beginning to understand, what Massachusetts understands, what New York understands and what countries around the world understand,” he said.
“And that is that human embryonic stem cells are more than an amazing medical advancement that will lead to treatments and cures of some of the world’s most devastating diseases.
“They are also an incredible economic development opportunity that we need to take advantage of,” he said.
Cohn noted that backers of California’s Prop. 71 spent more than $20 million to get the ballot initiative passed.
“It was incumbent of us to not let all of the attention go to California and other states,” he said.
“Wisconsin is a player.”