By Tom Still

SAN FRANCISCO – The sign hanging over the Badger state pavilion at the annual BIO convention proclaimed, “Wisconsin – Room to Breathe.” But you had to visit the New York State exhibit to breathe gardenia-scented oxygen at that state’s “oxygen bar.”

In a business that has grown to be as competitive as biotechnology, most states, provinces and even nations are eager to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Welcome to the world of bio-branding.

Wisconsin’s “Room to Breathe” slogan was intended to accent the sleek, uncluttered look of the state’s exhibit space in San Francisco’s Moscone Center, where scores of states, provinces and nations competed to attract the attention of investors, companies, researchers and just about anyone else in the crowd of nearly 20,000 attendees.

“Room to Breathe” also conveyed the sense that Wisconsin offers an antidote to some of the congestive ills that stem from doing business where the traffic is far worse, the real-estate prices are far higher, and the quality of life can be far lower. At least, that was our story as we stuck to it.

It wasn’t the only story in town, however, or even in our Midwest neighborhood. Iowa was “Life|Changing.” Michigan boasted of “Great Lakes ナ Great Location.” Illinois pitched the fact that BIO ’06 will be held in Chicago. Missouri was busily “Guiding Discovery.” Indiana invited visitors to “Be in a State of Mind.”

Elsewhere, Hawaii was “Open for Business.” Texas, never to be outdone, was “Wide Open for Business.” Better yet, “Virginia is for Business.”

Some states played on their weather and outdoor attractions. Washington State said “Innovation is Our Nature.” Arizona was “Beautiful for Bioscience.”

History was a theme, as well. With a Viking ship in the background, Norway’s sign announced that “Discovery is in our Genes.”

Some of the bigger biotech states weren’t shy about reminding visitors of who rules the roost. Massachusetts boasts “It’s all here.” California is a state of “Endless Opportunities.” New Jersey is “Where Life Sciences Lives.” Dallas-Fort Worth asserted to be “The Where, With All.”

Connecticut, on the other hand, was understated to the point of being boring: “Building on a Strong Foundation.”

Within our pavilion, the UW-Madison handed out cards that were headlined, “We know bio. We do bio.” The Wisconsin Technology Council reminded passersby that Wisconsin is part of the 400-mile “I-Q Corridor,” which extends from Chicago to Minneapolis. That’s “I” as in ideas, innovation, intellectual property and investment, and “Q” as in quality of education, environment and life.

There was more to the slogans that a desire to look snappy on a convention floor. It’s about securing market position. Frankly, a few states are mostly hat and no genetically modified cattle. They are making up for their relative lack of basic research capacity with big marketing budgets that dwarf those in Wisconsin, where has a history of scientific innovation and a tendency not to tell anyone about it. It’s the Germanic and Scandinavian modesty in us.

Over time, the biotech competition between states won’t be won by the best brand, but by the best scientists, entrepreneurs, investors and managers. Then again, it doesn’t hurt to tell your own story, either.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.