By Tom Still

LA CROSSE – “Build it, and they will come” is an acceptable strategy if voices are telling you to construct a mystical baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield, but it’s not normally the way medical research facilities are built. With a solid team of partners in place, the La Crosse Health Science Center may yet prove to be a research and tech transfer “Field of Dreams.”

The $27 million, 168,000-square-foot center is already an interdisciplinary force in medical research, training and clinical care in the “7 Rivers Region,” which includes 20 counties in western Wisconsin, northeastern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota. The full potential of the state-of-the-art center has yet to be tapped. That will happen, however, if a consortium of five partners continues to create opportunities for more research – and company spinoffs.

The La Crosse Medical Health Science Consortium was formed 10 years ago as an alliance between a comprehensive university (UW-La Crosse), a two-year vocational college (Western Wisconsin Technical College), an independent college (Viterbo University), and two independent hospitals and clinics (Gundersen Lutheran and the Franciscan Skemp Healthcare/Mayo Health System).

Led by a joint steering committee, the consortium initially decided to investigate collaborative projects to enhance primary care, to strengthen medical health science education, and to solidify interactive research initiatives in the clinical sciences. Now, an emerging goal is tech transfer – creating research-based companies.

Each partner is independently recognized for its health science programming, applied primary care or both. UW-La Crosse offers quality degree programs in a dozen health disciplines, including medical technology, physical therapy, nuclear medicine technology and microbiology. Western Wisconsin Tech offers associate degree programming in physical therapy, laboratory technology, radiography, medical records, technical nursing and electroneurodiagnostic technology. Viterbo College offers undergraduate degrees in nursing, dietetics and nutrition. Gundersen Lutheran and Franciscan Skemp are leaders in clinical care in the region, and both have research arms.

Collectively, the consortium is greater than the sum of its parts. Or, at least, the potential is so.

“It’s hard to find a better facility than this,” said John Katrana, executive director of the three-year-old center.

Like other business and consortium leaders, Katrana wants to capitalize on the blend of health care, education and laboratory space to attract talent, sponsored research and high-tech, biomedical companies to western Wisconsin.
“By building a technology infrastructure, we hope to attract new high-tech development,” Katrana said. “It will be good for the consortium and good for the economy of the region.”

The Health Science Center already has research in immunology, virology, infectious disease, microbiology, molecular diagnostics, human physiology, cardio-pulmonary, physiology and clinical microbiology. The bio-mechanics research program is award-winning and growing in demand.

The center also houses education and training programs for about 20 disciplines, which combines workforce development with hands-on research.

A dental clinic that serves poor people is located there. So is the Student Health Center, which offers health services to UW-La Crosse and Western Wisconsin Tech students. The center also serves as a practice rotation site for UW-Madison and Gundersen Lutheran medical students, family practice residency programs, medical record technicians and several other health professions. Distance education and “TeleHealth” programs, aided by federal grants, extend the reach of the center to rural areas.
Still, the La Crosse Health Science Center will be underutilized until its laboratories are home to an emerging company. The absence of a major research university nearby would ordinarily speak against that happening – but ties to the University of Wisconsin Medical School and Mayo Clinic suggest the possibilities.

The people, the partners and the facility are in place in La Crosse. All that’s needed is a signature tech transfer effort that will put the facility on the map. The La Crosse Health Science Center is built. In time, better things will come.

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