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Giving High Tech a Boost
By Andrew Haeg
Minnesota Public Radio
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Minnesota is known around the country for its medical device companies. But many say the state lacks a vibrant biotechnology industry that could be vital to future economic development. Now, state officials are joining the university in launching a public-private partnership they hope will encourage small companies, and make the state a center for biotech business activity.

U of M neurologist Karen Hsiao Ashe holds a transgenic mouse. She developed the mouse, which has an inherited form of Alzheimer's disease, in 1994. This is one example of biotechnology that could be taken from the lab to the marketplace more quickly under the BICI initiative.
(Photo courtesy of Mark Luinenberg)
THE STATE HAS SOME BIOTECH COMPANIES, but they're few, and like Acera Biosciences, small.

"We've really lost out over the past 20 years. What has developed in terms of a biotechnology industry? Virtually nothing," says Acera co-founder David Sherman.

Sherman is also director of the the U's Microbiology department. And he says the state needs to do more to help fledgling biotech companies like his.

Sherman supports what proponents are calling the Biomedical Innovation and Commercialization Initiative, or BICI. Supporters of the program want to raise $40 million. They hope the Legislature will give them $10 million, and are looking to the private sector for the rest. They'll use those funds to establish a company that would take U research from the labs into the marketplace.

"An initiative like this is critical for biotechnology to get a hold and develop in the state of Minnesota," Sherman says.

Many think a cluster of biotechnology companies could be a significant boon to the state's economy. With that in mind, Gary Fields, State Deputy Commissioner of Economic Development, says the state government needs to help finance biotech startups - to help them bridge the gap between an idea and a commercial opportunity.

"So we have to find a way to take these ideas that come out of this research environment - turn them into businesses that can generate an economic return for the university, create jobs that pay well, and create a return for Minnesota investors," says Fields.

For now, some local biotech businesses have claimed early success. But they lack much of the fuel needed to grow, like a biotech-savvy investment community, and top-notch students with degrees in fields related to biotechnology.

Bonnie Baskin is president of a Minnetonka-based biotech company called Viromed Labs. She says the state needs an initiative like this to build the "scaffolding" for a biotech industry.

"If you don't have any support - either from the state or the private sector - to help take these people out of the U and to try and keep them in Minnesota, it is our belief that the best and brightest will leave Minnesota," says Baskin.

The M G & E Innovation Center at the University of Wisconsin's Research Parkin Madison, Wis. is an incubator facility for start-up technology companies. U of M officials say it's a model for what could be done in Minnesota to support and encourage new biotech business ventures.
(Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin Research Park)
BICI is hardly a new idea. In fact, some say Minnesota lags far behind other states in spurring biotech startups. In San Francisco, San Diego and Boston, burgeoning biotech industries sprouted years ago around major universities or research facilities.

Biotech success isn't peculiar to the coasts, either. University of Wisconsin officials have built a thriving biotech cluster in Madison, through partnerships with the private sector. Tom Mulhern is a spokesman for the University of Wisconsin's research park, which supports biotech entrepreneurs in a way similar to Minnesota's BICI initiative. Mulhern says the 15-year-old park now supports 2,500 jobs paying $120 million per year in salaries. He says Minnesota could have the same success.

"There are a lot of bright scientists there. If they had the wherewithal to start a company, they would - and could - produce a product that, who knows, maybe could cure cancer. The potential is boundless," says Mulhern.

For now, BICI supporters will await the results of their funding drive. Both the house and the senate are considering the request for funds and will make a decision by the end of the session in May.

Related Information:
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