MADISON – In retail terms, a “loss leader” is merchandise sold below cost in order to increase store traffic and sales of other items on the shelves. A store owner might lose a few bucks selling one heavily discounted gadget, but make up for it handsomely through other sales.
Wisconsin’s high-tech loss leader these days are human embryonic stem cells. No one is making much money – yet – on sales of stem-cell licenses or products, but the state’s highly advertised expertise in the technology is forcing others to look at what else is inside the store.
After this month’s BIO convention in Boston, the editor of the Boston Business Journal dropped in a column item on Wisconsin’s showing at the international gathering of biotech scientists and business executives.
“One wouldn’t think of America’s dairy heartland as a biotech incubator. Then again, learning what other regions have to offer is much of what BIO is all about, and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle was in town to make a case for his state,” the item read. “The Badgers are not biotech wannabes. Wisconsin boasts the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the oldest academic tech transfer organization in the country, which holds 930 active patents. The UW-Madison ranks fourth in the nation in research spending – ahead of HarvardUniversity. And the UW is renowned for its stem-cell research. Who knew?”
The story went on to quote Doyle, who was interviewed by editor George Donnelly, on how UW stem-cell breakthroughs since the mid-1990s “have given us a real profile.” The story also noted that Wisconsin has 22,000 biotech and medical devices workers statewide.
The governor of Massachusetts also saw fit to reference Wisconsin when BIO came to his town. In a guest column that ran in the Boston Globe, Gov. Deval Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray helped make the case for investing more in Massachusetts biotech and stem-cell research by citing the research record of UW-Madison.
“Competitor states and foreign nations are investing billions to attract our researchers, institutions and industries,” wrote Patrick and Murray. “The University of Wisconsin-Madison outspends both Harvard and MIT in research and development.”
Of course, this kind of attention can be a double-edged sword. A story in the May 3 issue of Nature read as if Wisconsin’s entire biotech industry was circling the drain because three of WARF’s stem-cell patents have been challenged. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a preliminary ruling against Wisconsin, but WARF has yet to fully come to its own defense in what promises to be a lengthy legal process.
Still, that didn’t stop Nature from noting in a headline that the patent ruling “has delivered a serious blow to one U.S. state’s (Wisconsin) hopes of a biotechnology boom.”
Let’s be clear: Wisconsin is undergoing a biotechnology boom, even without the benefit of its expertise in stem-cell technologies. And while it is stem-cell research that grabs headlines, other biotech and medical device segments are humming along, producing products, sales and jobs.
Wisconsin’s inventory of biotech and medical device companies includes GE Healthcare, Promega, TomoTherapy, Third Wave Technologies, Covance and about 130 more. These firms are known worldwide for medical devices, molecular diagnostics and innovative therapies. Other rising stars can be found in biofuels, bioproducts and processes to improve agri-business. The state’s major research institutions spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on life sciences, and only a portion is devoted to stem-cell research.
That’s not to downplay the importance of human embryonic stem-cell research, which may redefine our 21st century understanding of medicine, but to underscore the fact that Wisconsin has significant depth and breadth when it comes to biotechnology. It is not a one-trick pony.
However, the trick that gets the attention of the press and public these days is stem-cell research. Wisconsin policy leaders should recognize that and use this amazing, homegrown science as something of a high-tech loss leader. Every time we talk about our prowess in stem-cell R&D, let’s also seize the chance to remind the world that Wisconsin has a well-rounded bio-portfolio.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.