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Pawlenty outlines vision for biotechnology
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Gov. Pawlenty says Minnesota must act boldly to take advantage of the new technological revolution in biotech. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Gov. Pawlenty says biotechnology is the new frontier of the technology revolution, and he wants to make Minnesota a leader in the field. Pawlenty told members of Minnesota's biotechnology industry Thursday he wants the state to foster biotechnology research and development. The governor's announcement came as a house committee began work on his other economic development proposal, to create five tax-free zones in greater Minnesota.

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty says Minnesota is well situated to take the lead in the race to develop the biotechnology industry. He points to the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic and their success in genomics and stem cell technology.

Pawlenty also says companies like Medtronic and Cargill have taken dramatic steps in biotechnology in recent years. He points out that other states are also working to spur development in the field.

"It is an absolute race. The institutions -- whether it be academic or commercial -- who sieze the intellectual property rights of these technologies are not only going to change the way we live, not only going to change the quality of our life, but it is going to be a cash cow and an economic stimulus the likes of which we have not seen in modern history," Pawlenty says.

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Image U of M's Bob Elde is pleased with Pawlenty's approach

Pawlenty proposes a series of initiatives to help spur economic growth in fields like molecular biology, genomics and agriculture processing. He says he'd like to create a bioscience park that would create and attract businesses in those fields. He also wants the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic to enter into a partnership so the two institutions don't overlap any research.

Pawlenty says he'd also propose tax credits for such businesses when the state's budget situation improves. He says Minnesota's geographic location and climate typically discourage businesses from relocating to the state. Pawlenty says the main focus of his plan would be to encourage smaller start-up businesses to prosper.

"I think if we're going to focus limited resources, we would be better served by building bench strength -- by trying to develop and identify the next Medtronic, the next St, Jude, maybe even the next Cargill," Pawlenty says.

Pawlenty isn't the first governor to encourage biotechnology investment. Under Gov. Ventura, the state invested $10 million in an initiative that provides seed money for researchers to create spinoff companies.

Members of the biotechnology sector were encouraged by Pawlenty's comments. Bob Elde, dean of the University of Minnesota's College of Biological Sciences, says it's important that Pawlenty makes a concerted effort to reach out to the state's biotech community.

(Biotechnology) is going to be a cash cow and an economic stimulus the likes of which we have not seen in modern history.
- Gov. Tim Pawlenty

"The attitude around here in the past is that if it should happen, it will. In this kind of industry, and where we are as a state, it simply won't work to have that laissez-faire approach. There has to be a blueprint, if you will," says Elde.

Elde does have concerns, though. He says Pawlenty's budget proposal to cut money to higher education could prompt students to choose other schools.

While Pawlenty was pitching his plan to spur growth in the biotechnology field, a committee in the Minnesota House started debate on his plan to create up to 10 tax-free zones in greater Minnesota.

The plan would exempt businesses from property taxes, income taxes and certain sales taxes if a business moves into an economically distressed area.

Pam Bishop with the Albert Lea Economic Development Authority says the bill would help keep businesses in her community. She says many have moved across the border to Iowa, in search of lower taxes.

"Our concern is keeping them here. We're always at a threat of them exploring new opportunities. Because of our border location, we are at a higher threat than those in the metropolitan area," Bishop says.

Several lawmakers, however, criticized the proposal. Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, questions the focus on rural areas of the state.

"Why are we not including, in the beginning, other extremely distressed areas? I have business people in my district that would love to have the opportunities for tax exemptions that are in here," Clark says.

The bill's author says the measure is a first step, and if the zones are successful, they could be expanded to include urban areas.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business did not testify on the bill, saying they haven't yet taken a stance on it. The House Jobs and Economic Development Finance did not vote on the bill Thursday. A vote will likely be scheduled next week.

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