Bioscience industry needs boost, leaders say

  • Article by: WENDY LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 20, 2011 - 9:19 PM

Changes in technology threaten to leave Minnesota behind, summit attendees warn.

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Recombinetics, a Minneapolis biotech firm, says it can eliminate undesirable genetic traits within animals.

Leaders of Minnesota's bioscience industry said Tuesday that disruptive technology that is changing health care places the state at risk of falling behind its global competitors.

While the state has long had a leadership position in medical devices, experts said it can do more in emerging areas of medicine such as using genetic information to treat disease.

"We need to keep our eyes open because radical changes are happening in technology and they are reinventing our world. Not always here," said Dale Wahlstrom, CEO of the industry group LifeScience Alley.

Wahlstrom spoke Tuesday at the Minnesota Bioscience Summit, which attracted more than 200 people who discussed major trends facing the bioscience industry. The Minneapolis event was hosted by the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota and LifeScience Alley.

Industry experts said data from the human genome and bioinformatics could transform the health care industry. They talked about using patients' genetic information to dose medicine more accurately and about deflating the global food crisis by altering the genetic traits of animals.

"It truly is the age of biology," Wahlstrom said. "Preparing you to be ready for that role as we look to the future -- that's what today is all about."

Wahlstrom said Minnesota companies are operating in exciting new areas of science, but they need support.

Genetic engineering of animals in Minnesota could help meet demand for more food, as the world's population grows from 7 billion to 10 billion people in 2050. That's one of the business goals of Recombinetics, a Minneapolis-based biotech firm.

CEO Scott Fahrenkrug said his firm can eliminate certain genetic traits within animals such as inferior reproduction. His technology would speed up the process, instead of waiting several generations to alter genetic traits.

"This represents a significant opportunity for the state," Fahrenkrug said.

The use of bioinformatics in health care can also shorten the time it takes for medical professionals to evaluate patients. CEO Mike Carrel of Minnetonka-based Vital Images said his business' software helps radiologists to view three-dimensional images of a patient's heart to judge whether a stent would work and how large it needs to be.

But advancing Minnesota's bioscience industry won't be easy.

Gov. Mark Dayton told attendees that "there are hundreds, literally thousands of jobs unfilled because there is a mismatch" in skills that job seekers have and the skills that bioscience companies need.

Academic officials attending the event said there needs to be more awareness of the training programs currently available and more financial support from government.

Dan Malmstrom, president and chief operating officer of Alexandria, Minn.-based Douglas Scientific, said that in the last two weeks he had to hire people from countries such as Pakistan to fill open positions in his life sciences business.

"We have a shortage of resources, highly technical resources that are going to fuel our innovation," Malmstrom said.

Wendy Lee • 612-673-1712

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