• WisBusiness

Saturday, May 05, 2007

 6:04 PM 

Getting noticed in 'Genetown': Wisconsin biotech on display in a city that knows its stuff

By Tom Still

BOSTON -- At last year's Biotechnology Industry Organization convention in Chicago, it wasn't intimidating for Wisconsin to be strutting its high-tech stuff. While Chicago is a business leader in almost every sense of the word, it's not well known for its biotech. Pharmaceutical companies, yes; biotech firms, not really.

That's not the case in Boston, a place so hopped up on biotech research, investors and boom times companies that the historic "Beantown" nickname has given way to "Genetown."

The 2007 BIO convention is being held in a city that can get a bit snooty about its wealth of research institutions, venture capitalists and biotech companies -- and rightly so. Outside of California, which is the nation's leader in virtually all things tech, Massachusetts is generally acknowledged as the strong No. 2.

So, what's a mid-sized state from the Midwest to do while standing in the shadow of the Giants from Genetown? Thump its chest, of course. Some quick comparisons:

Academic research: Everyone knows about Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, two of the nation's finest research centers. But guess which university outspends them both in research and development? In 2004, UW-Madison recorded $764 million in R&D spending, according to the National Science Foundation, compared to $543 million at MIT and $455 million at Harvard. Of course, other institutions in the Boston area such as Boston University ($241 million), the University of Massachusetts ($169 million) and Tufts ($126 million) add to that region's critical mass. Still, if you throw in the Medical College of Wisconsin ($130 million) and other Wisconsin academic institutions (at least $75 million), there's no need for R&D envy.

Tech transfer: The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation is the oldest academic tech-transfer organization in the county. It handles 300-plus disclosures per year from professors and researchers. Over time, WARF has received 1,605 patents. It holds 930 active patents, of which 101 were awarded in 2006 and 74 in 2005. License revenue ranks WARF among the nation's top five. Even in Boston, WARF is seen as a model.

Talent production: Recent research by the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Markets magazine and executive search firm SpencerStuart shows the UW-Madison has produced the leading number of graduates who are CEOs of major public companies -- more than Harvard in the Fortune 500 and tying Harvard in the S&P 500.

Capital investments: MIT's Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research is world-renowned, and Harvard University topped the Milken Institute's ratings list in 2006 for biotech research publications. Both are adept at moving from ideas to market. But Wisconsin is moving up in the rear-view mirror. The first phase of the Institutes for Discovery, a UW-Madison facility that will serve as a hub for interdisciplinary research, will cost $150 million. The UW-Milwaukee is planning two quadruple its research and invest $143 million in its infrastructure. The Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation just dedicated its $40 million Laird Center, and the Medical College of Wisconsin continues to add research capacity.

Companies: There are 300-plus biotech companies in the Boston area, including world leaders such as Genzyme. Wisconsin has more than 100 biotech firms, some 60-plus in Dane County alone.

Human embryonic stem cell research: More than 100 researchers are engaged in stem-cell work at the UW-Madison, where Dr. James Thomson was the first in the world to isolate human embryonic stem cells and keep them in an unchanged state. Researchers at Harvard are known for their stem-cell work, as well, but they seem to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about Wisconsin's patents in the field.

There's no denying the biotech leadership of Boston, but Wisconsin can hold its own in convention floor chats about which states are worthy of the trip to "Genetown." Banned in Boston? Not the biotech delegation from Wisconsin.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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