BioForward exec: State actions could scare off biotech investment

BioForward’s CEO wants Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers to recognize the impact of the state’s biosciences industry and help it grow.

But instead, says former WEDC exec Lisa Johnson, they’ve cut funding for UW and are pursuing a bill that would limit fetal tissue research, which Johnson said could make the world think Wisconsin is becoming an “anti-biosciences, anti-technology” state.

“This is the industry creating jobs, and we’re doing everything we can to hurt it,” Johnson told “That makes no sense to me.”

Johnson started the job in May after 22 years in the private sector and more than three years as VP of entrepreneurship and innovation at WEDC, where she said she learned about the industry’s vast impact outside Madison. And her job lately has consisted mostly of fighting the fetal tissue bill along with UW researchers.

The bill from Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, and Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, has passed out of committees in both chambers. But it might go through some tweaks as the bill gets to the floor, and Johnson pointed out the legislation started out “much more restrictive.”

The bill would ban research on fetal tissue from abortions that happened after Jan. 1, 2015, making any researchers who violate the bill face a class H felony. And that, Johnson said, would prevent life-saving research that has led to discoveries like the polio vaccine.

“When you start to prevent that [research], faculty leave,” Johnson said. “They’ll go elsewhere. … I’ve heard from pharma all over the world that [they] can’t do business in states that have these kinds of restrictive policies.”

The bill comes as BioForward is planning a marketing campaign touting the strengths of the state’s industry — hoping to unite the various aspects of the industry under one voice. Among the highlights of its economic development report out last month are that the industry employed 36,000 people in 2013 and had a $27 billion impact on the state.

Those numbers, Johnson said, will help as industry leaders visit lawmakers’ offices more often to inform them of industry developments in the areas they represent.

“We have to turn into marketing people,” Johnson said. “We have to do a better job to educate [legislators] not only when major issues come up — that’s not fair to them, either. We need to be going consistently and saying, ‘Hey, I just want to keep you updated. Here are some of the things impacting your district.’”

Still, Johnson said Walker and lawmakers haven’t been completely supportive of the industry, pointing to the state’s new venture capital fund excluding investments in biotech. The fund, however, can invest in medical imaging and devices.

She also contrasted Walker’s approach to that of other GOP governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey or former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

“Perry was always out there going, ‘Bioscience, bioscience. Come here. Come to Texas. This is the place,’” Johnson said.

Among the benefits BioForward is highlighting is the industry’s impact on manufacturing. Matt Jennings, the chairman, CEO and president of the Hudson manufacturer Phillips-Medisize Corporation, said at BioForward’s summit last month that 85 percent of his business now comes from biomedical products.

While some Republicans might shy away from biotech leaders, Johnson said they “should be comfortable with Matt Jennings” and other manufacturers across the state.

But that’s the type of message that Johnson said hasn’t been pushed as strongly in the past, which is why she said she took on the BioForward job.

“We just haven’t told that story very well yet,” Johnson said. “So I guess I just found [this job] as a challenge. I love competition. I think I’ve been given a great opportunity to tell a great story, and we’ll see if we can do it.”

— By Polo Rocha