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Pawlenty: Minnesota poised to be biotech leader
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The Minnetonka-based Cargill Dow company makes everything from candy wrappers to pillows out of its corn-based plastic. The plastic biodegrades in 60 days under the right conditions. (MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)
Governor Pawlenty convened more than 600 scientists, entrepreneurs, and executives in Minneapolis for the "Governor's Biosciences Summit." Pawlenty told the crowd Minnesota has the people and ideas to be a biotech leader. "Biotechnology" involves using living organisms to make anything from medicines to plastic. Critics of the governor say Minnesota may have a tough time competing, and Pawlenty should focus on more important priorities.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Minnesota will be in good company as it tries to ride the biotechnology wave. States across the country see attracting biotech firms as a ticket to economic prosperity.

Some regions have already emerged as biotech centers, almost all on the east and west coasts. Governor Pawlenty knows competition will be stiff, but addressed those who say Minnesota is already outgunned.

"Let's not go around with our tail between our legs, saying southern California's already beat us, Boston's already beat us," Pawlenty said. "You know, that's a loser's attitude. And if you want to be losers then just concede and go back to doing other things but the choice is to do nothing. That's not a good choice."

In fact, Pawlenty is doing a number of things to help Minnesota claim its share of the expected biotech explosion. He used the biosciences summit to announce a new Governor's Biosciences Council. The panel will advise the administration on attracting biotech jobs and investment to the state.

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Image The lure of Medical Alley

Pawlenty is asking lawmakers for $100 million over the next five years to fund a biotechnology research center in Rochester. And legislators are also looking at a proposed tax-free zone for biotechnology firms. The zone would likely surround the state's major public and private biotech research centers: The University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic. Pawlenty calls them the core "magnets" that give Minnesota an edge in attracting investors for biotech companies.

"Many would say we are capital challenged. Some of the recent statistics and studies would show that to be true. There are reasons for that," Pawlenty said. "But Minnesota absolutely, given the players that are here, given the institutions that are here, can garner the sufficient capital to make things happen."

Other big players are companies like 3M and Medtronic. Both are considered leaders in medical biotechnology. But presenters stressed Minnesota's natural strengths may lie in industrial and agricultural biotech. Karl Rabago represented Cargill Dow, a joint project of its namesake corporations. The Minnetonka-based company makes biodegradable plastic out of corn.

"Here's some of the things you can make with it: Disposable flatware, disposable cups for events, like these used for vending at the Olympics," Rabago said as he flipped through a series of slides. "Blend a little bit of talc into it and you can make yogurt cups with it. Spin it into fibers and you can make blankets or fill pillows. You can make it into carpet."

Though most of its scientists and managers are in Minnetonka, Cargill Dow built its main production plant in Nebraska. Rabago wasn't sure why the company chose Nebraska instead of outstate Minnesota.

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Image Worthington doesn't plan to get "left behind"

Glenn Thuringer directs economic development for the small city of Worthington, and was one of the few outstate representatives at the summit.

"We need to make sure that we have a presence here, that we are not left behind," Thuringer said. "The ones who will be left behind are the ones who aren't here."

Minnesota shouldn't spend time and energy encouraging any particular type of business, according to Art Rolnick. Rolnick is director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. He says If Minnesota is really a good place for biotech, companies shouldn't need help from the state. Rolnick calls banking on biotech "highly speculative."

"Like a company, the state should look at where the highest returns are," Rolnick said. "The strength is clearly in the workforce, and that's what we should be investing in."

For Rolnick, that means more money for education, especially in early childhood. He says the payoff is big, even if it's decades away. But Pawlenty and others say Minnesota needs to act now, before the opportunity to build a biotech industry fades.

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