Former congressman travels world in support of biotech industry

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 16, 2013 - 8:51 PM

Former congressman from Pennsylvania travels the world in support of the U.S. biotechnology industry.

Atul Thakrar, CEO of Golden Valley-based biotech company Segetis, met recently with Jim Greenwood, CEO of BIO.

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Jim Greenwood, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), was in the Twin Cities recently to visit CEO Atul Thakrar at Segetis.

The Golden Valley-based company, which is expanding, uses plant-based materials to supplant petrochemicals in cleaning products. Greenwood represents more than 1,200 biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations across the United States and 30 other nations.

BIO, which last week hosted its annual convention in China, also lobbies the federal and state governments for favorable policies. Greenwood, a Republican member of Congress from 1993 until he took over the trade association in 2005, was involved in health care and environmental issues, and led House investigations into corporate governance at failed Enron, Global Crossing and WorldCom, as well as waste and fraud in federal government agencies.

Q: What is biotechnology?

A: At its simplest, biotechnology is a broad field of science that seeks to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet. Whether we call ourselves biotech, biosciences or the life science industry, the diversity of the scientific discovery and commercialization efforts are linked by the application of knowledge of the ways plants, animals, and humans function.

Q: Who are some of the Midwest business stars of the biotechnology industry?

A: There are too many biotech companies spread across the Midwest to begin singling them out. These are companies that are in the business of producing products that combat debilitating diseases, feed the hungry, improve our environment through the development of cleaner domestic energy and produce safer, cleaner and more efficient industrial manufacturing processes.

Chicago has long been a major hub for the biosciences and is home to several industry leading biopharmaceutical companies that are addressing major health care concerns, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease. Chicago is not alone. Over 48,000 Minnesotans are employed in biotech. The Twin Cities supports several dozen well-established biotech companies, ranging from health care to industrial biotech and renewable chemical companies.

Q: Is biotechnology growing fastest in food, fuel or in health care?

A: Each sector of our industry has areas that are showing growth. Within Minnesota, companies engaged in various aspects of research and testing of biomedical therapies and the development of biofuels have grown at a rate well beyond the national average. Over the past decade, we have consistently outpaced the overall national private sector in job creation. Over 6.5 million Americans are either directly employed in biotech, or work in a capacity that supports our industry. These are high-skilled, good jobs, paying substantially more than the average U.S. wage.

Q: A lot of the biotechnology industry is focused on alternative fuels and substitutes for oil-based chemicals and solvents in plastics, fabrics and other products. Yet, in the past several years, a lot of oil and gas, thanks to hydraulic fracturing, has become accessible in North America. Our oil imports are down. Why do we need biological substitutes for petroleum products?

A: Industrial biotechnology companies have been pursuing renewable fuels, renewable chemicals and bio-based products as substitutes for petroleum products because they are cost-competitive with oil and better for our environment. That’s still the case. Industrial biotechnology combines agriculture, chemistry and biotechnology to create new value chains and markets. Further, this technology helps reduce our reliance on foreign petroleum from the volatile Middle East. Even with U.S. oil production increasing, prices remain high and unstable as worldwide demand outstrips supply.

The abundance of natural gas has changed the energy market, but it creates more opportunities than competitive challenges for renewables. Natural gas replaces petroleum in some chemical markets, such as ethylene. But that makes it more expensive to use petroleum for other chemicals, like butane or butadiene, which opens a market opportunity for cost-competitive industrial biotechnology applications. The low cost of natural gas makes manufacturing here in the United States an attractive option, too. It lowers the cost of bio-based processes that need a heat source.

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