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Biotech has potential in rural Minnesota
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Melanie and Ron Burns, pictured with daughter, Sarah, operate a DNA lab at their home southwest of Bemidji. Economic developers in Bemidji hope to draw more biotechnology businesses to the region. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
There are only a few places in the country considered hotbeds for emerging biotechnology industries. Minnesota isn't one of them. Gov. Pawlenty hopes to change that with an initiative to strengthen a biotech corridor in the Twin Cities and Rochester. But some say biotech businesses could also spur economic development in rural Minnesota. Leaders in Bemidji are exploring ways to develop a mini biotech cluster of their own.

Bemidji, Minn. — Northern Minnesota seems an unlikely place to hear the hum of a genetic sequencing machine. But this is the headquarters of Northwoods DNA. The lab sits in a converted residential garage in a thick forest southwest of Bemidji. Scientists provide DNA sequencing and genotyping for customers worldwide. Owner Ron Burns and his wife, Melanie, are graduates of Bemidji State University's biology department.

"We have the same kind of equipment you would find at any modern laboratory at Purdue University, at MIT, anyplace like that," said Ron.

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Image The lab in the woods

The lab is a mom-and-pop operation -- literally. The Burns work just steps away from home. Their three kids are familiar faces around the lab. Ron and Melanie Burns used to work as geneticists for the U.S. Forest Service at Purdue University. But Melanie says they always dreamed of moving back to rural Minnesota.

"I'm not sure that a lot of people are going to be building labs in the woods," said Melanie. "But the overall trend is, you don't have to be in the city any more."

Biotech in the north woods isn't that complicated. Customers place their orders on the Internet. They send vials of DNA samples via FedEx or UPS. Ron and Melanie Burns and their three employees analyze the DNA. They send results back over the Internet. Ron says high-speed Web access and reliable delivery give biotech businesses mobility.

"I think there's a lot of potential for businesses like ours to be in rural areas, just because it really doesn't matter as far as the location," he said.

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Image Northwoods scientist Michelle Pearlson

Burns says his business might not have been feasible a decade ago. Genetic sequencers were expensive. Now, Northwoods DNA is stocked with eight sequencers they bought second-hand from larger labs. Years ago, DNA sequencing was expensive for consumers. It cost several hundred dollars to have a single DNA sample analyzed. The going rate is now about $10 per sample.

Burns' customers include hospitals, university research labs and private industry. They've analyzed a variety of animal DNA, human DNA for cancer research, and DNA from genetically altered crops. One regular customer is a London researcher who sends DNA samples he collects from whales in the Gulf of Mexico. Ron Burns expects the business to grow.

"Within the next 10 years, we'll probably have 25 to 30 scientists working for us, which, if you have that, you have to have a large support staff behind them," Ron Burns said. "So it could be several hundred people at that point."

About 60,000 Minnesotans worked in biotechnology in 2000. Very few of those jobs were found in rural Minnesota. But Larry Young, director of the Joint Economic Development Commission in Bemidji, says smaller communities shouldn't be deterred.

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Image Larry Young

"Sometimes you just have to go out and shake the trees a little bit, and see what's going to fall out," said Young.

Young says the success of Northwoods DNA got him thinking about the potential for biotechnology, so he checked around and learned of another local biotech business. A man was quietly cloning seed potatoes and shipping them off to companies across the country.

"When you start thinking about cloning, that's kind of 'gee whiz' stuff. And it was being done on the east side of Bemidji," said Young. "So if some of those things come to the top, you go, 'I wonder what else people are doing out there.'"

Community leaders say Bemidji may have the seeds to grow more biotech businesses. Bemidji is the medical services hub of north central Minnesota. Those facilities could someday offer gene therapy. Bemidji State University has biologists doing genetics research. There are DNA experts at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's Bemidji crime lab. And there's Northwoods DNA. Young has invited those groups to begin networking. They'll meet for the first time in a few weeks.

You can't just go in and say we're going to start a biotech cluster in a rural area... If all rural areas are going to try to be biotech leaders, I think they're doomed for failure.
- Lee Munnich, senior fellow, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs

"If other people know that there's a beginning kind of critical mass starting to be formed, it's probably the contacts the people in the network have that might well start some synergy here that would see some additional growth," Young said.

Experts say attracting biotech businesses isn't easy. A Brookings Institute study last year concluded most efforts will fail, even in large cities. Lee Munnich, a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, says to be successful, biotech firms need huge amounts of venture capital. And even the Twin Cities struggles to attract that.

"You can't just go in and say we're going to start a biotech cluster in a rural area," said Munnich. "Certainly, biotech could be an opportunity for some rural areas. But ... if all rural areas are going to try to be biotech leaders, I think they're doomed for failure."

Munnich says biotech companies also need a solid research environment and an existing base of biotech activity. He says rural Minnesota would be better served focusing on other economic strengths.

"A few years ago, everybody wanted to be sort of like information technology leaders. Every community wanted to, somehow or other, be part of the dot-com boom. Well, we saw what happened with that," said Munnich. "And I think the same sort of thing could happen if everybody sort of assumes that the genetic advances are going to be the key here."

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Image Sees potential for biotech growth

But Bemidji resident Jim Bensen says it's worth a try. Bensen is a former president at Bemidji State, and now heads Minnesota Technology, Inc., a statewide organization that works to infuse new technology into businesses. Bensen's face lights up when he talks about the economic potential of biotechnology.

"It's really an exciting time to be alive," Bensen said. "I wish I was 18 again."

Bensen predicts biotechnology will spawn industries not even thought of yet. He says it will transform American life. Farmers will see higher yields and grow healthier foods. Bio-engineers will produce better, more environmentally safe products. Diseases will one day be conquered with gene therapy.

Biotechnology activity is now centered in less than a dozen major cities, mostly on the coasts. But Bensen says biotech industries will eventually trickle into rural Minnesota. He says now is the time to get ready for the new, knowledge-based economy.

"Stop and think about this -- every second of every day, there are 17 new breakthroughs somewhere in the world of new knowledge," said Bensen. "That's 1.4 million new things every day... That's the future of Bemidji."

Rural Minnesota's biggest draw may be that it offers what some seek -- a quiet, rural lifestyle. For now, the state of Minnesota is focusing its biotech efforts in the metro area.

Gov. Pawlenty is asking the state Legislature for $20 million in bonding to build a joint research facility for the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic. He also wants $15 million for development grants. That money would attract biotech projects to zones in St. Paul, Minneapolis and Rochester. Biotech proponents say the governor's proposals don't go far enough.

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