From L to R: Tom Foti, general manager of Aldevron’s Madison office; Matt Jennings, president and CEO, Phillips-Medisize; Bill Murphy, co-director of UW-Madison’s Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center; and Derek Hei, vice president of clinical manufacture, quality and regulatory activities for Cellular Dynamics

Wisconsin hasn’t quite achieved status as a worldwide hub for biomanufacturing, but it has all the pieces—it just needs to put them together, panelists said at the 2016 BioHealth Summit, held in Madison on Sept. 27.

“There isn’t a place in the United States that has more of the ingredients to be the next big hub for biomanufacturing than Wisconsin,” said Bill Murphy, professor biomedical engineering, orthopedics and rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

University resources such as UW-Madison’s Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine Center, which Murphy co-directs, are among the state’s unique assets in this area. Wisconsin’s universities are unusually well connected with the business community, Murphy said, and the faculty and students are uniquely motivated by impact more so than accolades or compensation.

The day-long event, hosted by BioForward and sponsored by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, among others, highlighted many of these resources from academia and industry. Lucigen CEO Ralph Kauten received the Wisconsin Biohealth Business Achievement Award for his contribution to shaping the purpose, vision, values and strategy for a number of Wisconsin’s biotech companies. James A. Thomson, professor of cell and regenerative biology at UW-Madison and director of regenerative biology at the Morgridge Institute, received the Hector F. DeLuca Scientific Achievement Award. In 1995, Thomson’s lab was the first to isolate embryonic stem cell lines from a non-human primate; in 2007, his lab isolated human induced pluripotent stem cells, which are derived from somatic cells rather than human embryos, and are therefore less controversial. Both discoveries were deemed “Breakthough of the Year” by Science magazine.

Positioned to Excel in Biomanufacturing

Wisconsin’s strength in many manufacturing subsectors—such as aerospace; energy, power and control; and food processing—ideally positions the state to excel in biomanufacturing as well, said panel moderator Tom Foti, general manager of Aldevron’s Madison office.

As an example of how biomanufacturing can benefit from Wisconsin’s preexisting manufacturing expertise, Foti described how Aldevron, which supplies nucleic acid, proteins and antibodies for biological research, had worked with Ananth Krishnamurthy, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering at UW-Madison, to apply Quick Response Manufacturing principles to its operations.

Foti also noted the recently announced collaboration between Marquette University and the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) to create a biomedical engineering department that is now recruiting new faculty, and MCW’s recent announcement of a discovery that restored a quadriplegic patient’s ability to use his hands and arms through stem cell therapy.

With exciting advancements and plentiful opportunities, it’s an exciting time in Wisconsin, Foti said: “As a state, we’re at an inflection point.… This is a bold vision, and we need everyone here to be an active participant in making this vision a reality.”

Attracting Top Talent to the Field

In work with such potential to change lives, the panelists spoke about the importance of hiring people who are motivated by the company’s vision and not just by compensation, a theme echoed in a separate panel on human resources issues and creating a culture that attracts and retains top talent.


BioForward CEO Lisa Johnson

Too many companies post their openings on job boards and leave it at that, said moderator Anne Nimke, CEO of The Good Jobs Inc. “You have to attract them before you can select them,” she said, urging listeners to consider their companies’ websites and social media presence, how company culture is portrayed and whether these digital media connect the dots to show “what’s in it for me” for prospective hires. This approach will help attract candidates who are proactive about pursuing opportunities for career development, rather than those who are only looking for a new job because they got laid off.  In turn, this will benefit the company’s culture and productivity: “If you have happy and engaged employees, you will have better results.”

Since health tech companies are competing for employees that are in demand in other fields—such as engineers, programmers and data scientists, as well as doctors and other medical professionals with clinical experience—they must make an effort to win over these coveted hires by promoting their company culture, lifestyle and the opportunity they offer to make a difference in the future of health care, panelists said.

New Technologies, Opportunities

Keynote speaker Mark Freitas, managing director of Accenture Strategy’s Competitiveness Center of Excellence, highlighted the potential of new technologies such as:

  • Sensor-enabled medications, which work along with a sensor a patient can wear that will detect whether the patient took his or her medication and transmit that information to the patient’s physician
  • Capitalizing on the widespread use of fitness trackers such as Fitbit and the Apple Watch (see Aetna’s recent announcement that the insurer will give away Apple Watches to its employees and subsidize the device for its customers)
  • Uber being used to transport patients to medical appointments if they otherwise lack transportation, thus decreasing the incidence of missed appointments
  • TaskRabbit being used to deliver medication to patients with mobility issues, thus decreasing the incidence of patients neglecting to pick up their prescriptions
  • Robots that cook recipes on demand for the sick and elderly, thus helping these populations eat more nutritious diets

Another panel featured companies that weren’t always in health care, but entered the field when market conditions forced them to pivot. Executives from FUJIFILM North America (which recently purchased Madison-based Cellular Dynamics), IBM Watson Health, and Cisco Healthcare described how their companies, which previously focused on different types of technology, pursued opportunities in health technology not only due to potential profits, but because of the potential to make an impact.

The Human Factor

In a panel on the trend toward patient-centered care, the importance of a decidedly low-tech factor—the human connection—emerged as a theme. Panelists described how patient advocacy groups, utilized and sometimes even formed by pharmaceutical companies to help them find a sufficient number of patients to conduct clinical trials of experimental therapies for rare diseases, had provided benefits for the patients beyond participating in trials and benefiting from new therapies.

Tim Cunniff, executive vice president for drug development with Marathon Pharmaceuticals, which has developed and is seeking FDA approval for a drug to treat Duchenne muscular dystrophy, recalled hearing from a parent whose child was part of a support group for the disease, “This is the first time my child has ever had friends.”

Panelists for a session about breakthrough approaches to cancer treatment also emphasized the importance of the human factor. Chorom Pak, who spun off her Ph.D. research at UW-Madison into a startup, Lynx Biosciences, described how her technology enables personalizing therapy for multiple myeloma patients, identifying which drugs will and won’t work for individual patients based on genetic analysis of tumor cells.

Pak said it was important to her that tests using the company’s technology not require an additional biopsy, which would cause additional pain and inconvenience to the patient. Rather, Lynx’s test uses tissue already collected during the initial biopsy.

GE Healthcare Marketing Director Andy DeLaO, who has worked with patient communities to develop and build two new hospitals and six new cancer centers, and is working with investment teams to build 25 cancer centers in China, agreed with the importance of the patient perspective: “At the end of the day, there is no greater expert than the patient.”