By Tom Still


CHICAGO – A stem cell scientist from Harvard University dropped by Wisconsin’s pavilion at this week’s international biotechnology convention and noted, with a hint of admiration, that it was abuzz with activity.


“I really think there’s more action around the Wisconsin exhibit than anywhere else I’ve been on the (exhibit) floor,” he said.


The compliment was appreciated, but foot traffic at a trade show – even one of the world’s largest trade shows – doesn’t mean a lot unless there’s adequate follow up. To continue drawing the attention of biotech leaders on the East and West coast, as well as around the globe, Wisconsin must ensure that its newfound perception of momentum continues to be supported by reality.


The BIO ’06 convention in Chicago provided a forum to highlight what sets Wisconsin apart from Malaysia or Maryland; from Ireland or Indiana. The list includes being a pioneer in human embryonic stem cell research; the proposal to build the Institutes for Discovery on the UW-Madison campus; other leading research centers at the Medical College of Wisconsin and the Marshfield Clinic; a major presence by GE Healthcare; and a growing list of smaller companies with market-ready products.


While California, Massachusetts and some other tech-heavy states are leaders in biotech research and commercialization, Wisconsin can compete with many bigger states – and has an enviable position among mid-sized or smaller states that are only now entering the competition.


Stem cell research is a prime example. While it’s true that human embryonic stem cell research represents only part of the medical biotech spectrum, there are only a relative handful of states and nations that can claim an advantage. Wisconsin is among them. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson made sure Wisconsin researchers such as Dr. James Thomson got the support they needed in the late 1990s, and Gov. Jim Doyle has built upon that base.


Doyle was forceful in his remarks to different crowds and news media in Chicago, making it clear he intended to protect – and grow – Wisconsin’s edge in stem cell research. (Stem cells are the building blocks of the human body, and scientists believe they can be used to regenerate tissue and organs, and to provide a platform for producing safer, more effective drugs.)


“When I tell the leaders in the biotechnology world that I had to veto legislation to keep stem cell research growing in Wisconsin, they can’t believe anyone would want to do away with what we have accomplished,” Doyle said. “But I refuse to let politics trump science — especially when it holds so much potential to do so much good.”


Thomson, who could someday joins Wisconsin’s list of Nobel laureates, once again made it clear he’s not a candidate to be lured away by Harvard or Stanford, to cite two leading stem cell research centers. While those places may have more dollars to invest, Thomson said, he’s proud of what Wisconsin has built in its research programs.


“At the end of the day, it’s a lot better to beat Harvard than to join them,” Thomson joked.


Then again, legislation that restricted stem cell research in Wisconsin could chase away even committed Badgers such as Thomson and his colleagues. And the state would lose one of its best biotech “brands.” The state’s reputation would go from being science-friendly state to shaky, almost overnight.


“If you end up doing things out of the mainstream, it won’t help you grow, attract or maintain your bioscience base,” said Walter Plosila, vice president of the independent Battelle Technology Partnership Practice, which works with thousands of tech companies and labs worldwide.


From medical science to bioproducts and biofuels,Wisconsin has a tentative toehold in the 21st century bioeconomy. But there are others who would all too gladly take the state’s place if it lost its grip.


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