By Tom Still

MILWAUKEE – There’s no secret as to why the Madison area has developed a research-based economy to rival far larger U.S. cities: The UW-Madison has been a massive, unified engine for technology transfer and business growth. And local leaders have generally been smart enough to capitalize on it.

Milwaukee, for all its size and muscle, isn’t so fortunate as to have one of the nation’s largest research universities in its midst. Yes, it has UW-Milwaukee, the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Milwaukee School of Engineering, Marquette University and many smaller institutions of higher learning, but they have rarely, if ever, been organized around a coherent economic growth agenda.

That may be changing in Milwaukee, a city that has long enjoyed the collective resources necessary to build a New Economy, but not the political will and collaborative impetus to do so.

The emergence of the Biomedical Technology Alliance, which held a March 3 symposium to highlight the Milwaukee area’s bioinformatics and medical informatics “cluster,” offers a chance for the region to pull together. It won’t happen overnight (even in Madison, real progress took decades) but Milwaukee has the potential to build many new jobs around the convergence of genetic knowledge, information technology and advanced patient care.

On the same day figures were released that showed Milwaukee lagging the nation and the Midwest in household income, the result of a decline in manufacturing, the medical technology symposium offered a look at a brighter future.

On hand were scientists from five research centers, a half-dozen or more hospitals and medical centers, and companies that trace their roots to regional research aimed at improving patient care. Topics ranged from diagnostics to therapy, and from genomic analysis to personal electronic health records.

All the pieces are there for a biomedical cluster of national prominence, about 160 participants were told, but putting those pieces together won’t be easy.

“They are Balkanized,” almost to the point that identifying all the researchers and entrepreneurs is a task in itself, said William Hendee, senior associate dean and vice president of the Medical College of Wisconsin. “We are attempting to identify the intellectual capital that exists in the region”

The symposium had plenty of technical moments, to be sure, but the central theme was how the explosion of knowledge about the human genome can be leveraged with the help of information technology to dramatically improve patient care. That intersection of technology, it was argued, will create new businesses and jobs.

Bioinformatics and medical informatics is revolutionizing health care by:

  • Allowing scientists to conduct high-speed computations related to analysis of the human genome, which will speed drug development, new treatments and, perhaps, cures.

  • Allowing physicians and other medical personnel to better tailor treatments for individual patients, a trend called “personalized medicine.”

  • Allowing the health care industry to more easily record, retrieve and share medical data, something that also gives patients more ability to help manage their own care through electronic health records.

Why does Milwaukee have an edge in those fields? The right combination of research programs, medical centers and a large patient base are already in place. For example, the UW-Milwaukee and the Medical College recently launched a doctoral degree program in medical informatics, one of only two in the Midwest. The region’s private TechStar partnership is helping the academic community work more closely together.

“There is an emerging critical mass in this region,” said Herman Viets, president of the Milwaukee School of Engineering, which hosted the meeting.

To be sure, other regions won’t stand still. Several speakers spoke with admiration about the work being done by Wisconsin’s Marshfield Clinic, or other joint projects involving UW-Madison. However, Milwaukee has the right combination of talent and size to create more spin-off companies. It’s only a matter of getting organized, and that’s what the Biomedical Technology Alliance is all about.

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