By Tom Still

MADISON – A state that has experienced historic floods and the announcement of a major plant closing within the past two weeks could use some good news. Perhaps it’s found in the steady growth of Wisconsin’s biotechnology industry.

When the Wisconsin delegation shows up on the floor of the San Diego Convention Center for this week’s BIO international convention, it will have fresh success stories to swap with the 20,000 or so attendees. Since the last BIO convention in Boston in May 2007, Wisconsin has chalked up the following:

•      Madison-based TomoTherapy Inc. opened trading on the Nasdaq National Market with an initial public offering of shares that generated $185 million in net proceeds.

•      Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche acquired NimbleGen, a Madison-based firm, for $272.5 million. NimbleGen’s employees appear to be staying put in Wisconsin.

•      The U.S. Department of Energy announced it would locate a $135-million federal laboratory on the University of Wisconsin campus to study cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels. It is one of only three such DOE labs in the nation, and Wisconsin’s first new federal lab in generations.

•      The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation began to fend off legal challenges to its key patents for human embryonic stem cell breakthroughs. WARF’s initial success cooled initial fears in some quarters that its patents would be overturned.

•      Construction of Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery began at UW-Madison. This $150-million interdisciplinary research center will be the first of its kind in the Midwest, and a draw for researchers worldwide.

•      Organizers of the World Stem Cell Summit announced they would hold their 2008 meeting in Madison, a sign of Wisconsin’s prominence in stem-cell research.

The latest announcement came a week ago: Hologic Inc., a Massachusetts medical technologies firm that specializes in products for women’s health, agreed to buy Madison-based Third Wave Technologies for $580 million. Hologic plans to keep Third Wave’s manufacturing and R&D operations in Madison, where the company has 143 full-time employees.

Quietly but impressively, each passing year has brought stronger Wisconsin ties to major biotech, medical device and pharmaceutical companies. Some other examples:

•      GE Healthcare has about 7,000 employees in Wisconsin. A five-year master agreement between GE and the University of Wisconsin yielded about 50 project statements; a second five-year agreement for research and intellectual property is under way.
•      Sigma-Aldrich has plants in three locations for production of more than 3,500 organic compounds, pharmaceutical products, vaccines, sera and more.
•      Genzyme Corp. acquired a Madison-area company in 2005 and maintains a research facility there.
•      EMD BioScience and EMD Crop BioSciences operate major facilities in Madison and Milwaukee, respectively.
•      Monsanto has six facilities in Wisconsin, including a 100,000-square-foot research facility (formerly Agracetus) near Madison.
•      Covance employs about 1,900 people in Madison, where its campus serves 25 pharma and biotech companies worldwide.
•      Representatives of Pfizer met with about 20 Wisconsin companies in late 2007. Conversations with selected companies are continuing as Pfizer explores for new technologies.
•      Abbott Labs has purchased more than 400 acres of land in southeast Wisconsin, within about 45 minutes of an existing facility in northern Illinois.

While there will be 48 states and even more nations in San Diego, all claiming to be biotech hubs, a relative few have what it takes to succeed in one of the global economy’s most competitive arenas. Wisconsin is among that group. Only a few years ago, the big boys and girls of the life sciences world could afford to look past Wisconsin as just another flyover state. Today, they’re spotting ample opportunities on the ground.

When bad news strikes, it’s usually immediate and dramatic. Good news sometimes takes its sweet time to accumulate. That’s the case with Wisconsin’s biotech industry.

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