Biobusiness booms in Minnesota

  • Article by: WENDY LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 7, 2011 - 9:13 PM

An industry group says the outlook is improving for Minnesota's biobusiness industries.

A life sciences industry group is calling for Minnesota to build on its success in medical devices to become a leader in areas such as pharmaceuticals and agricultural biotechnology.

In a report released Monday, the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota said the state is making progress. The report said Minnesota showed 20 percent growth in biobusiness jobs from 2002 to 2007, compared with a 3 percent decline from 1997 to 2002, the last time the alliance measured the sector.

That growth continued in 2008 and 2009, the group said, and was driven largely by big gains in areas where the state has been weak.

"This didn't happen by chance," said Dale Wahlstrom, the alliance's CEO. "The involved stakeholders across the state decided to change course as a result of the negative trends identified in [the previous] report."

He pointed to efforts by the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic to commercialize their research and technologies, as well as increased dialogue between industry, academia and government.

For example, the state saw employment in pharmaceuticals increase 76 percent over a five-year period to 3,398 jobs in 2007, the report said. The growth was bigger than in any of ten competing states in the report.

Employment in the medical device industry in Minnesota increased by 4,500 jobs during 2002 to 2007. That compared with a loss of 11,000 medical device jobs nationwide during that same time period, the report said.

While Minnesota is home to medical device leaders such as Medtronic Inc., it has a much smaller presence in other areas of biobusiness. But report author Kelvin Willoughby of research and consulting firm Willoughby International said the study underscores that progress has been made.

"There has been an impressive turnaround," Willoughby said.

Minnesota also saw a 44 percent growth over the same five-year period in biotech jobs related to plants and agriculture and in industrial fields such as bio-energy. The growth wasn't as strong as in some of the other states, and the report points out this is an area that could be improved.

Willoughby said the overall positive trend has continued during the recession. In 2009, Minnesota saw more growth in the number of biobusiness jobs and companies compared to the rest of the nation.

For example, the number of biobusiness companies in the state grew 10.3 percent in 2009, compared with just 4 percent for the nation, Willoughby said.

Still, Willoughby classified the growth as "fragile" due to the amount of competition from other states. In the use of biotech in agriculture and industry, employment growth was modest compared to other competing states, the report said.

BioBusiness Alliance officials said how the trend progresses will depend on policies affecting the medical devices industry and the continuation of support to grow the bioscience sector.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken said on a conference call announcing the report that the industry benefits the state because it supports large numbers of good-paying jobs.

"Minnesota has the potential to expand its position as one of the top biobusiness states in the nation," Franken said.

Bioscience represents a bigger share of employment in Minnesota than in many other states. In fact, the state's economy is 43 percent more dependent on the sector compared to the rest of the nation, the report said.

"Minnesota can't afford to sit pretty here," Willoughby said. "It can't take for granted its success."

Wendy Lee • 612-673-1712

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