Tuesday, April 11, 2006

States battle for slice of biotech pie

States battle for slice of biotech pie
By Karen Pierog

CHICAGO (Reuters) - U.S. states squared off against each other on Monday in a battle to capture jobs and revenue generated by the burgeoning biotechnology industry.

A report released at the BIO 2006 conference here showed U.S. employment in biosciences reached 1.2 million in 2004. That was slightly more than a 1 percent increase since 2001, with workers earning a lucrative average annual wage of $65,775.

"These are good, well-paying jobs," said Walter Plosila, a vice president at Battelle Technology Partnership Practice, which co-sponsored the report.

The report also found that states are spending billions of dollars to support bioscience research and development. State governments are also using investment funds and tax incentives to attract large industry anchors, instead of solely focusing on launching and growing new bioscience ventures.

Nearly every state sponsored a booth at this week's worldwide biotech industry meeting at Chicago's McCormick Place convention center, according to James Greenwood, president and chief executive officer of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Thirteen governors were expected to attend the conference, up from the nine who came to last year's event, according to a BIO spokeswoman.

The competition for biotech is fierce, according to Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, whose two-story, multi-media state exhibit at the conference looked down at those from Michigan, Illinois and Ireland.

The Democratic governor is also keenly aware that competition can get skewed if states begin restricting scientific endeavors, such as stem cell research.

"We have not had restrictive legislation move in Kansas, which I think is good news," Sebelius said.

But a legislative effort in neighboring Missouri to ban and criminalize such research has touched off a petition drive in that state to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot to circumvent state or local government restrictions on stem cell research and cures allowed under federal law.

Sebelius said she hoped the petition drive proves successful.

"It would send a message that this area of the country is very interested in bio research," she said.

Donn Rubin, chairman of the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, which is leading the petition drive, said the group has the backing of Republican Gov. Matt Blunt and more than 46,000 members.

"We want it off the table so we can absolutely claim Missouri is pro-science," he said.

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle has set himself in the role of gatekeeper, vetoing legislative attempts to curb stem cell research.

"As long as I'm governor, we're going to stop those who want to curtail stem cell research and we're going to aggressively move forward," the Democrat said.

Noting that the state is the birthplace of human embryonic stem cell research, Doyle said his vision is for Wisconsin to capture 10 percent of the business and job growth surrounding stem cell research by 2015.

Plosila said research restrictions were clearly an impediment to any state's efforts in the biotechnology area.

"If you end up doing things out of the mainstream, it won't help you grow, attract or maintain your biosciences base," he said.

Robert Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer at St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., said companies involved in research were keeping an eye on developments in states that might lead to restrictions.

"We want to make sure that our universities and companies have full access to the tools and technologies that can lead to innovations in the future," he said.