WisBusiness: UW’s stem cell pioneer to start business in Madison

By Brian E. Clark

Dr. Jamie Thomson, the UW-Madison scientist who first isolated and reproduced human embryonic stem cells, has leased space at the University Research Park and will be starting a bioscience company.

Greg Hyer, associate director of the park, said Thomson has leased a 700-square-foot lab in the MG&E Innovation Center. He said the new business is called Cellular Dynamics International, Inc.

Stem cells from young embryos can replicate indefinitely and give rise to any of 220 kinds of cells found in the body. Scientists believe that such cells could yield treatments and cures for hundreds of diseases, including diabetes, cancer and Parkinson’s.

Gov. Jim Doyle said he was pleased to learn Thomson will continue his work in Madison.

“In Wisconsin, we are at the forefront of stem cell research, largely because of the tremendous efforts of Dr. Jamie Thomson,” Doyle said. “As we deepen our investments into biotechnology, we have an aggressive strategy using public and private money to ensure that we cultivate an environment where discoveries can be converted into new businesses and jobs.”

Hyer said Thomson told research park officials he wanted his company to be close to the university. Hyer said Thomson’s enterprise is in its infancy and is just beginning to order lab equipment.

“We are delighted to have him,” Hyer said. “He is an asset to the university and we are glad that the park is positioned to help him. Many other high-tech and bioscience companies have started small like this and then taken off.

“Anything we can do to retain bright young faculty members is important,” he said. “A lot of them now want to do research, teach and commercialize their breakthroughs. We can help give them the whole package.”

Tom Still, head of the Wisconsin Technology Council, hailed Thomson’s decision to start a business.

“I think it is tremendous that Dr. Thomson will be commercializing some of his great research and ideas,” he said. “The University Research Park is a natural location to continue is work.

“I think over time – and I emphasize that this will take time – there may be a number of commercial applications for stem cell research,” he said.

Still said people should not expect new treatments overnight.

“But setting up a company that will be attractive to investors could accelerate getting research into the marketplace,” he said.

Still said Thomson’s decision to create a bioscience firm also sends a strong message that he wants to stay at UW-Madison and help grow the Wisconsin economy.

When Californians passed Prop. 71 in November, they voted to invest $3 billion over the next decade into stem cell research. Many in this state worried that scientists such as Thomson would be lured west to work in the new California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

But the university and the state did not want to lose Thomson and his cohorts.

“We have the team that discovered this whole area and we have every intention of keeping them,” said Andy Cohn, spokesman for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. The foundation controls the university’s stem cell patents.

And in mid-November, Gov. Jim Doyle laid out plans to invest $375 million of state and private money in a new Wisconsin Institute for Discovery on the UW-Madison campus. The building proposal is part of a plan to bolster work in biotechnology, health sciences, and stem cell research. Thomas and his colleagues would work at the institute.

“Thomson’s decision to start a business supports the notion that he has long-term roots in our state and wants to continue his research here.,” Still said.

“It also means the team he has assembled will stay here. This is also about the talent he has working with him.”

Thomson was unavailable for comment Wednesday, but in a December speech at the Madison Club, he warned that talented scientists might be tempted to set up shop in California.

At the time, he said he had no plans to leave UW-Madison.

“Wisconsin has been very good to me,” the Chicago native said. “So I have no plans to go anywhere.”

After his speech, which was a fundraiser for Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, Thomson added: “I’m never entirely happy. Yet as long as I feel like I am doing important work here, I’ll be fairly content.”

Thomson also praised Gov. Jim Doyle for backing stem cell research and putting the weight of his office behind science.

“The governor’s plans are really good for the state, and my program will be able to compete because it is well established,” said Thomson.

“But it will be hard to attract the brightest people here when they can go to the West Coast and get a $10 million lab,” he said.

“It’s going to be a zoo out there,” said Thomson, whose face has been on the cover of Time Magazine. “And a lot of money will be spent badly. But it will still be tough for us to compete for the best minds.”

Thomson said California voters who were told the referendum would pay for itself in five years will be disappointed.

However, the proposition should pay off in 15-20 years in the creation of new biotech firms and the advancements coming from them will be remarkable, he said.