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Friday, August 31, 2012

Tom Still: Wisconsin's maturing biotech economy means storms can be weathered


By Tom Still
Some of the 130 or so workers at Madison's Hologic Inc. facility were among the first employees of Third Wave Technologies, which was born in the mid-1990s in the labs of UW-Madison and grew so quickly that its stock was listed on the NASDAQ exchange by 2001.

They're still the same talented molecular biologists, laboratory technicians and product designers today they were 15 years ago, but beginning Sept. 30, all 130 will lose their jobs over the next two years.

It's a story that tracks the life cycle of one of Wisconsin's earliest biotechnology success stories – from Third Wave's startup to its initial public offering to its rough times, followed by resurrection, acquisition and, finally, looming shutdown. But it also speaks to the underlying resilience of the state's biotech economy, which should encourage displaced workers hoping to land on their feet.

Massachusetts-based Hologic produces medical devices, imaging equipment and molecular diagnostics, much of which are focused on women's health. The company told its Madison workers this summer it will phase out the former Third Wave facility, which it had acquired in mid-2008. The decision was tied to Hologic's acquisition of Gen-Probe Inc., a San Diego company that owns molecular diagnostic product lines similar to those produced in Madison. Something had to give – and that something was Hologic's Madison plant.

Not so long ago, the shutdown of a Madison biotech company with 130 workers would have prompted a flood of resumes to Boston, California, North Carolina's Research Triangle and beyond. There simply wasn't enough critical mass in Wisconsin to allow that many workers, or even a portion of them, to find jobs close to home.

That situation has changed, according to a panel of industry veterans who discussed the Hologic shutdown Tuesday during a meeting of the Wisconsin Innovation Network in Madison. Their message: Don't panic.

"This wasn't the first time something like this has happened and it won't be the last," said Randy Dimond, chief technology officer and vice president of Promega Corp., Wisconsin's oldest and most globally recognized biotech company. "However, we are better positioned today than we've ever been to work through it."

Promega was launched in 1978 and has grown to about 1,100 workers worldwide today, including about 700 on its gleaming campus in Fitchburg. Construction began a year ago on a $90-million expansion that will lead to about 100 new Promega jobs over five years – including many scientific jobs that require the kind of skills held by Hologic workers.

Kevin Conroy, the former Third Wave CEO who helped rescue the company in the mid-2000s, echoed Dimond's remarks. Conroy left Third Wave after the Hologic acquisition and could have landed a job just about anywhere, but he never forgot Wisconsin and its talented core of tech workers.

In 2009, Conroy persuaded the board of a small publically held firm in Massachusetts – Exact Sciences – to move to Madison. The relocation has paid off. Exact Sciences has grown to 90 employees and the company may be within a year of federal approval of its non-invasive colorectal cancer test, which could dramatically improve detection and treatment.

As Exact Sciences nears product launch, it will also need more workers with backgrounds like those who will soon leave Hologic.

"I knew this was where I wanted to be, in large part because of the talented people," Conroy said.

Biotechnology is a young industry and prone to the "creative destruction" of new companies pushing up from below. Meanwhile, mature companies are acquired or buy other companies themselves. That kind of churn is inevitable nationally, and Wisconsin's biotech industry is not immune. But it has grown to a point that it can roll with the market punches.

From Promega's birth in 1978 until 2003, 25 years later, the Madison-area biotech economy grew to 52 companies. Five years later, in 2008, there were 68 biotech firms. In the latest count for MGE's High-Tech Directory, there were 88 biotech companies with 6,350 employees and $1.6 billion in revenues.

It's one of the reasons why the Madison-area economy is still "among the most dynamic in its weight class," said Aaron Olver, economic development director for the city of Madison.

The growth in Madison's tech economy is continuing, despite the national recession, a dearth of venture capital and other factors that have slowed some sectors. Even as biotech fought through troubled times the last three years, other local tech sectors have grown.

For workers at Hologic and other biotech firms that ride the roller-coaster of the markets, that means more opportunities to find good jobs close to home. The process won't be easy, but it shouldn't be impossible, either.

-- 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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