WEDC shifts strategy on international biotech conference

Wisconsin biotech companies continued to participate in this year’s international BIO conference as the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. took a reduced role, helping state companies to attend rather than staffing a state pavilion.

BIO2015, a 5-day event held last week in Philadelphia, attracted 1,700 exhibitors, including biotech companies, pharma industry and academic institutions from around the nation and other countries, according to the event website.

In previous years, WEDC officials traveled to the international biotech event to promote Wisconsin as a hub of biotech research and production. In 2013 the WEDC spent $169,340 on a mobile pavilion, which it set up and staffed at that year’s BIO conference in Chicago, as well as at the 2014 conference in San Diego. The state agency, which replaced the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, had traditionally provided scholarships for Wisconsin firms and individuals to attend the BIO conference.

This year, the WEDC decided to forgo the pavilion, saving the cost to transport and staff the structure. The WEDC did, however, provide about $50,000 in attendance scholarships.

Lisa Johnson, CEO of the state biotech group BIOforward, said her group administered the scholarships, which covered the nearly $2,000 cost to attend the event for 26 individuals representing 17 Wisconsin companies.

The possibilities for networking and for forming business partnerships are well worth it, Johnson said. The conference has nailed an effective system for making the most of attendees’ time and goals, she said.

In addition to general networking events, participants can use a computerized program to book meetings with specific companies, she said. “You go in the system and see who’s attending and you send through requests, and then it books times, dates and rooms. You get a calendar and everything’s set up.”

Johnson, who formerly worked for WEDC as vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation, said the state economic agency’s reduced presence makes sense for taxpayers. Staffing a trade show pavilion is difficult and expensive, she said, and less effective than encouraging Wisconsin companies to attend and try to match up with like-minded companies and researchers.

“A lot of states are starting to pull out (from hosting pavilions at BIO) because of the cost, and they’re finding that these business development partnering activities are much more valuable and a better return on investment,” said Johnson.

A representative of WARF — the university’s alumni research foundation — attended BIO and UW-Madison’s Office of Corporate Relations sent two people, including Kathy Collins, who describes herself as a business liaison for the university.

“It was a great week,” said Collins. “We had some really productive business-partnering meetings, which was the role that we played this year. ”

Collins said UW met with some 20 to 25 companies, “ranging from multinational pharma companies to smaller companies that have an interest in researchers.”

Collins compared the half-hour meetings to speed-dating, “but much more focused and concise.”

“This year there was a very, very large international presence, so we had the ability to meet with many foreign companies and international companies and talk about international business developments as well,” said Collins.

One trend in pharmaceuticals that was discussed at the conference was “precision medicine,” according to Johnson. In the future, medications will be more and more designed to complement an individual’s genetic makeup, she said.

Another exciting topic was the recently approved 21st Century Cures Act federal initiative, said Johnson. “It’s really a bipartisan approach to finding faster cures (for disease) rather than always just treating chronic conditions,” she said.

Collins said she sought out sessions on international trends, “to see what’s next in the technology development arena, to see where we can focus some of our research proposals with the private sector.”

What she learned: “Everybody’s looking for the next biologic,” she said, also citing diagnostics, vaccines, infectious disease and regenerative medicine as emerging research trends.

— By Kay Nolan