Bray ready to grow BioForward after success in Menomonee Valley

After a decade of running Menomonee Valley Partners, which promotes the redevelopment of Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley, Laura Bray was looking for a new challenge.

She’s found it, she believes, as CEO of Madison-based BioForward, a trade group for Wisconsin’s life science industry – which creates everything from medical devices to “tissue chips” for testing new drugs and environmental toxins. She replaced Bryan Renk, who left the organization this past summer. She joined BioForward in November.

While Bray acknowledged she has not worked with biotech companies in the past, she said her experience as an “intermediary” who can bring the public and private sectors together should serve her well in her new job.

At Menomonee Valley Partners, she helped lead efforts to clean up brownfields and bring new businesses to the 1,200-acre valley that runs from Miller Park on the west to the Harley-Davidson Museum on Canal Street. In between is the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino. Over the past 15 years, the valley has added 5,100 jobs, thanks to the investment of $1 billion, $800 million of which was from the private sector.

“My expertise has really been being a person who is an intermediary role in supporting an organization that can work with the public and private sector, bringing resources and attention around a very specific target,” explained Bray, who added that she believes science innovation needs to be supported at a high level.

“I’ve been working in community and economic development for almost 20 years. It’s been really exciting to work with companies that are … in a pretty strong growth pattern. Nationally, companies that are around five years old are the ones that are creating the new jobs. I think there is a great opportunity to bring Wisconsin together around a sector that we are already a leader in and make it more so.”

Bray said she hopes to help elevate the awareness around the state and nation of Wisconsin’s position as a hotbed of life science companies that range from small startups to GE Healthcare. UW-Madison, she noted, is one of the main biotech research institutions in the country. According to the National Science Foundation, the university receives more than $1 billion annually to support research in science and engineering.

She said a report from the Battelle Institute shows that Wisconsin has more than 1,400 bioscience-related businesses that support 32,000 jobs. During the recession, Bray noted, Wisconsin was one of the few states where biotech employment grew. From 2005 to 2012, she said biotech jobs in the Badger State increased by 8.2 percent. Only 11 other states saw employment gains in the biosciences during that period, she added.

She said BioForward currently has 250 members, most of them in Madison. She said she hopes to increase membership from companies in other parts of the state in coming years by increasing services and programming for them, while focusing on core efforts such as government advocacy, attracting capital and recruiting talent. She said she does not, however, have a specific number of companies she’d like to add to the trade group in 2015.

“One of the unique really unique things about Wisconsin compared to other states is that we have such a diversification within biotech and the life sciences. So for an organization like BioForward, it requires a diverse set of tools that we can use to elevate the sector.”

Bray said when she interviewed for the job, she felt “great energy around the potential to build something even stronger than BioForward is today.”

Bray said one of the first things she did when she assumed her new post was contact the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to make sure the life science industry is front and center in the state’s economic development considerations.

“We’ve partnered with WEDC,” she said. “I jumped on that immediately. We also have targeted Act 255, which we were active in getting passed. We want to be sure we are making use of current tax incentives and improve them so we are on par with other states.”

Under Act 255, an individual investor can claim a 25 percent income tax credit on the total amount invested in a qualified new business venture. The program was designed to spur growth in early stage high-tech companies that studies show create large amounts of jobs.

— By Brian E. Clark