Back in 1916, when the Marshfield Clinic was founded by a handful of forward-looking physicians, it didn’t seem so isolated. In fact, Marshfield stood at the crossroads of several major railroads – and the passenger lines that passed through were a steady source of people in need of care.

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Today, the railroads are just a memory in terms of ferrying people, and Marshfield is accessible mainly by highways that sometimes narrow to two lanes. However, the clinic remains a globally recognized hub for patient care as well as clinical and applied research. Why? Innovation has trumped location.

Through its research foundation, labs and applied sciences arms, the Marshfield Clinic has expertise in genomics, bioinformatics, electronic health records, drug testing, epidemiology and even veterinary science. It routinely attracts federal and industry grants – and manages to lure top-flight researchers to its gleaming facilities in central Wisconsin, even if it’s a bit off the beaten path.

The Marshfield Clinic is emblematic of the quality of biomedical research and development throughout Wisconsin – as well as the collaboration that takes place across institutional and geographic lines.

Marshfield is a part of the Wisconsin Network for Health Research, which includes the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, Aurora Health Care and Gundersen Lutheran Medical Foundation. That coalition came together for the specific purpose of moving research results to the bedside more quickly and efficiently.

The clinic is also a part of the Wisconsin Genomics Initiative, which includes the UW-Madison, the Medical College of Wisconsin and the UW-Milwaukee. That initiative works with Marshfield’s personalized medicine database that includes about 20,000 genetic records, making it the largest of its type in the nation.

This kind of research excellence – and collaboration – is evident across Wisconsin. Some other examples:

  • The UW-Madison Department of Radiology has established enduring partnerships with other research institutions as well as global leaders such as GE Healthcare, which has worked with UW scientists to speed the delivery of medical imaging innovations such as X-ray, computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, ultrasound, positron emission tomography and more. It’s a major reason why Wisconsin has emerged as a medical imaging “cluster” with thousands of related jobs.
  • In Milwaukee, the collaborations include the Clinical & Translational Science Institute, which is a project of the Medical College of Wisconsin, the BloodCenter of Wisconsin, the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, Froedert Hospital, Marquette University, UW-Milwaukee, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and the Zablocki VA Medical Center.
  • In western Wisconsin, the La Crosse Medical Health Science Consortium is another example of applied research connecting with patient care. The consortium’s Health Science Center is home to research and clinical programs involving Gundersen Lutheran, UW-La Crosse, Western Technical College, the UW-Madison School of Nursing and the Gundersen Lutheran.
  • Other R&D collaborations in Wisconsin can reach far beyond its borders as well as within. The 7th annual Stem Cell Symposium, held April 11 on the Promega Corp. campus near Madison, included researchers from a number of UW-Madison departments, leaders of emerging companies in Wisconsin and researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Cambridge, the University of California and the RIKEN Center of Developmental Biology in Japan. It was symbolic of the research ties that can be traced, at least in part, to the UW-Madison’s global leadership in regenerative medicine and the birth of a related industry.

For state policymakers, the inter-connected nature of Wisconsin’s biomedical industry – from lab bench to bedside – should underscore its importance to the well-being of people as well as the economy. Short-sighted laws or regulations aimed at one discipline or institution can and usually do have a rippling effect.

It also demonstrates that Wisconsin, while far from the U.S. coasts, is a leader when it comes to biomedical innovation. Just because the railroads stopped dropping passengers on its doorsteps, the Marshfield Clinic didn’t wither away. The same approach holds for Wisconsin in today’s global economy. Innovation need not take place in Boston, San Francisco or Tokyo to rank among the world’s best.

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