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Report finds flourishing biobusiness industry in Minnesota

Lab technician Amber Schueler, shown in this 2010 file photo at Epitopix in Willmar, conduct research on animal vaccines for the company located on the MinnWest Technology Campus. The Mid-Central Research and Outreach Center set to open this summer on the campus will include a laboratory where start-up businesses can conduct research and development. Development officials see this as a way to turn ideas into businesses that then provide jobs. Tribune photo1 / 3
Dr. Kelvin Willoughby makes a point Tuesday as representatives of the Minnesota Biobusiness Alliance visit the West Central Tribune offfices. Also pictured is Stacy Thompson, chief of staff of the Public Affairs Co. Tribune photo by Gary Miller2 / 3
Jeremy Lenz, chief operations officer with the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota, stressed the need for biobusiness to remain on the cutting edge. Tribune photo by Gary Miller3 / 3

The biobusiness industry has flourished in Minnesota during a time when many st-ates saw stagnation or decline. The performance of the medical device industry, the life sciences, bioagriculture and other related sectors holds great promise for the state's future -- but it's going to be critical to sustain this momentum, say officials with the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota.

"If you're not moving forward, you're moving backwards," according to Jeremy Lenz, chief operations officer.

Representatives of the BioBusiness Alliance have been traveling the state this week to share findings of a new report that assesses Minnesota's competitiveness in the biobusiness technology industries.

Today they embark on a series of two dozen meetings with state legislators to discuss the report.

The 92-page document analyzes data from the U.S. Economic Census on wages, job growth and industry growth in the biobusinesses from 2002 through 2007.

Among the findings:

- From 2002 through 2007, employment in the biobusiness industry in Minnesota grew 23 percent, compared to a 1 percent decline nationally.

- The industry saw a 57 percent increase in wages paid; nationally, wage growth was 22 percent.

- Employment by Minnesota's medical device companies increased by 4,500 jobs, while the U.S. as a whole lost 11,000 jobs in the medical device industry.

- The state's overall upward arc in the biobusiness technology arena has increased Minnesota's competitiveness, but the state remains vulnerable, particularly in areas such as bioagriculture and bio-industry, in which Minnesota's performance has been weaker.

The report describes bioagriculture and bio-industry as technology directed toward applications outside the human body -- ethanol production or other fermentation processes for use in food or energy, for example.

Dr. Kelvin Willoughby, the consultant who prepared the report, said the overall data show a biobusiness industry that's vital to the state's economy.

"The contribution to employment in the state is very impressive," he said. "This industry is making a difference for wealth generation in the state and for jobs."

The medical device sector is especially strong and actually outranks California in terms of productivity, Willoughby said.

The report, which builds on an earlier study that looked at Minnesota's biobusiness industry from 1997 to 2002, shows a decade of movement that's mostly forward, he said. "We see anecdotal evidence, at least, of the synergy going on here. There's great hope here because the state is showing it can renew itself in difficult times."

Preliminary statistics for 2008 and 2009 suggest that growth leveled off after the economic shock of the recession but resumed a modest upward trend last year.

Lenz sees at least one trend that bodes well for the future: Between 2002 and the end of 2007, biobusiness development across Minnesota became less scattered and more coordinated.

"This is a statewide industry. The entire state is impacted, both positively and negatively," he said.

But in order for the industry to grow, it will need to be able to attract investors, he said. It also needs to find more ways to link research and innovation with practical application -- something Kandiyohi County officials hope will happen when the University of Minnesota opens its Mid-Central Research and Outreach Center this summer on the MinnWest Technology Campus.

The future lies in ideas, information and innovation, said Steve Renquist, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

"We've got to be able to take better ideas and turn them into a business and run it in a profitable manner," he said.

With the opening of the research center, "we have the opportunity to grow the jobs, to grow the wealth and to grow the tax base simply by promoting the high-tech industries," he said.

Lenz said it's the Biobusiness Alliance's vision and strategy to nurture the capital that already exists in Minnesota for advancing the biobusiness industry.

"It's all asset-based. It's understanding what assets are here and leveraging them," he said.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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