• WisBusiness

Friday, August 20, 2010

Challenges aside, Wisconsin’s biotech sector positioned for growth


By Tom Still
MADISON – If black crepe came in DNA double-helix swirls, some pessimistic analysts would hang it over the still-breathing body of the nation’s biotechnology industry.

After nearly two decades of unbroken success, biotech has spent the past two years dealing with one crisis after another. Its problems include scarce venture capital after the collapse of the financial markets, continued backlogs in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, regulatory delays at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, uncertainty over congressional renewal of a 28-year-old small business grant program, attacks on a 30-year-old federal law that accelerated university research, and passage of a health-care reform bill deemed anti-innovation by some critics.

What better time for Wisconsin’s biotech community to hold a conference?

The annual Wisconsin Biotechnology Vision Summit will be held Aug. 25 in Middleton amid a Dickensian “best of times, worst of times” atmosphere. Some in the state’s biotech industry remain worried about a nagging collection of threats – but others look ahead to the promise of a brighter tomorrow.

“While it’s an uncertain time, it’s still a time of opportunity in the biotech sector,” said Bryan Renk, executive director of BioForward, a statewide association that is producing the annual conference.

Renk, who came to BioForward with a deep background in agricultural biotechnology and business development, believes current challenges to the industry will give way in time to renewed growth.

His optimism isn’t Pollyannaish. Biotechnology has only begun the search for diagnostics and cures for most major diseases, especially in the developing world. Other frontiers of discovery include opportunities to create more and better foods, fuels and environmental solutions.

Biotechnology was an infant industry 30 years ago; today, it has a collective market capitalization rate of $350 billion, with 55 biotech companies showing market caps of $1 billion or more. The much-celebrated “BioCentury” remains in full swing, thanks to changing demographics, growth in markets outside the United States and a recent shopping spree by major pharmaceutical companies.

Big Pharma was slow to come around to research and development of so-called “large molecule” biotech drugs, preferring to stick to traditional “small molecule” compounds. That has changed virtually overnight, with major pharmaceutical companies acquiring biotech companies in order to replenish their drug R&D pipelines.

And while the storm has yet to pass in the venture capital industry, Renk believes mounting supplies of cash will eventually give way to more investments as the markets readjust.

Other trends that bode well for biotechnology include innovation in fields such as regenerative medicine, genomics and “bio-greentech.” And it’s hard to think of a global challenge – climate change, energy security, sustainability, pandemic control, food production and safety and improved healthcare – that cannot be addressed, at least in part, through biotechnology.

The Biotechnology Vision Summit will address those issues through discussions on topics such as biodigesters, personalized health care, innovation in agricultural biotech and a speech by Jim Greenwood, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

The conference will also feature company partnering exercises that will match Wisconsin firms with companies and others from outside Wisconsin, including representatives from the Canadian province of Manitoba. Renk said it’s a way to build the “I-Q Corridor” that connects biotech companies, researchers and investors ranging from Chicago to Minnesota’s Twin Cities and beyond.

Hold the black crepe for now, Mr. Undertaker. Biotechnology in Wisconsin and elsewhere has its troubles, but the industry’s future is very much alive.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. To learn more about the Biotechnology Vision Summit, visit www.bioforward.org.

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