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.
Q: What's your biggest legislative challenge in Washington, D.C.?
A: In this tough budgetary climate, ensuring appropriate incentives for innovation, whether they be funding, reimbursement or intellectual property, continues to be our top challenge so that our companies can bring life-sustaining and life-improving new treatments and cures to patients at the earliest point in time.
Q: You were here recently to visit Segetis, a growing company that uses plant-based substitutes for chemicals in certain products, including detergents. CEO Atul Thakrar at Segetis is expected to announce a plant expansion soon. Any idea if it will be in Minnesota?
A: I don't have any inside information on Segetis' plans. I will say, however, that the United States needs a policy environment at both the state and federal level that encourages commercial development of new technologies born here. The United States has abundant agricultural resources, which yield numerous low-cost energy resources.
This is very attractive to industrial biotech companies like Segetis. But access to the capital necessary to build manufacturing facilities is still a challenge. Other countries are offering tax and grant structures that help companies raise this capital, and we should, too. There is a proposal before Congress to create a Qualifying Renewable Chemical Production Tax Credit, whose adoption will help the United States remain competitive in manufacturing and encourage companies like Segetis to commercialize homegrown technologies. U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Rep. Collin Peterson have been champions for the renewable industry.
Q: What's the future for biotechnology?
A: Without a doubt, the future of biotechnology is strong. I envision a day when breakthrough drugs lead to a world without cancer, or AIDS or Alzheimer's. The biotechnology industry has come a long way in a short time. The goal now is to build on this momentum and to make sure the U.S. remains a leader in innovation and discovery. That means having the right public policy and regulatory environment in place that encourages innovation and investment.
Bringing a drug to market, so it may be used to treat and help patients, is quite different from developing a new mobile application or creating a new social media tool for use on a smartphone or computer. It requires policies and programs that reflect the significant time and investment required to bring lifesaving drugs to the marketplace.