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Q&A: BioForward Looks to Expand Wisconsin's Life Science Cluster Beyond Madison and Milwaukee

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Bryan Renk comes from a family that was the first to incorporate a farm in the US in 1936, as William F. Renk and Sons, now known as Renk Seed.

Now Renk, who once served as a director and product development executive at the family business, is looking to cultivate seeds of a different sort, namely Wisconsin's cluster of life sciences companies, in his new position as executive director of BioForward, the 270-member, three full-time-equivalent employee statewide organization that represents Wisconsin’s biotechnology industry. Renk starts work for BioForward, formerly the Wisconsin Biotechnology and Medical Device Association, on Oct. 1 — six days before the group holds its day-long Biotechnology Vision Summit, at the Marriott Madison West hotel.

While Wisconsin's life-sci industry isn't as large as those of the megaclusters of the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston/Cambridge, Mass., the Badger State has drawn attention nationwide for its four-year-old Act 255, which allows venture capital funds to claim a 25-percent income tax credit on up to $2 million in aggregate cash equity investment in a single startup.

Under Act 255, businesses can receive up to $4 million in tax credit-eligible cash equity investment, of which up to $1 million in tax credit-eligible investment can come from angel investors. Act 255 has sparked a jump in the amount of VC investment drawn by Wisconsin, and in the number of companies receiving such cash.

Last year Gov. Jim Doyle signed into law an expansion of the tax credits known as Act 2. The measure in part expanded to $37 million from $11.5 million the state's maximum amount of annual tax credits for angel and venture investors under Act 255. The provision was part of Senate Bill 62, a larger measure designed to plug a $700 million shortfall in the current fiscal year's budget. The legislation included a new $175 million hospital tax and a new $27 million tax on computer software, as well as a $125 million spending cut.

Wisconsin's life-sci cluster received some additional good news last month, when Flex Biomedical said it will relocate from Boston to Madison. The developer of products for the treatment of musculoskeletal injuries and diseases will receive a $150,000 loan from Wisconsin’s Technology Venture Fund for further research and development, and for the purchase of equipment.

Renk was most recently president and director of aOva Technologies, and previously served as director of patents and licensing, and licensing manager, at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which assists University of Wisconsin-Madison professors in patenting their technologies and bringing them to market. He sits on the boards of Maple Leaf Farms, a seller of fresh and frozen duck products to consumers, restaurants, and retailers; as well as influenza vaccine developer FluGen, and the Wisconsin Agricultural and Life Sciences Alumni Association. Renk holds MS and BS degrees in meat and animal science and muscle biology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Renk's varied experience persuaded the board that he could relate to and help grow Wisconsin's broad array of life-sci companies: "What Bryan and his experience really speaks to is the need to really have a strong association to support that next stage of growth for the companies in Wisconsin," Laura Strong, president of BioForward's board of directors, said in an interview.

Strong said the board was looking to Renk to build on some recently-launched programs, including a career fair that BioForward hosted for the first time this year and hopes to grow into an annual event, and a "drive-in" event in which senior managers of life-sci companies head into the state capital of Madison to discuss the industry and its needs with lawmakers.

"We're looking to Bryan to take these things to the next level," added Strong, who is president and chief operating officer of Quintessence Biosciences, a Madison biopharmaceutical company focused on developing protein-based therapeutics as anti-cancer agents.

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BioRegion News this week interviewed Renk on his new position, and the broader challenge of growing Wisconsin's life sciences industry. Following is an edited transcript of the interview:

How did you become interested in BioForward? What drew you to wanting to run the organization?

[aOva Technologies, of which Renk is president and director] is a member of BioForward, and then historically, with my previous employment at WARF, I was pretty familiar with the organization and the organization's growth. I started going to [BioForward] meetings back in 1995, and then coming forward and seeing the transition and growth from a part-time position and role and growing membership, and the growing high-tech community in Wisconsin, to transitioning into a full-time role, and then the growth of the membership and the organization as well.

Now, I think that what you see these days is that [BioForward] is in a perfect position to grow larger. There's a lot more infrastructure in place. There are a lot more companies in place. The industry has branched out from some of the key areas of the state, like Madison and Milwaukee, to other areas of the state. So we think it's just a prime time to grow. And then several of my colleagues are pretty involved in the organization, and suggested that I take a look at the position.

You spoke of the expansion of the industry beyond Madison and Milwaukee. What has driven that expansion?

The state has been focusing on it, so you see some companies have moved from, say, the Twin Cities [Minneapolis and St. Paul] into Wisconsin. Some companies have moved from Illinois into Wisconsin. We've seen one company from the East Coast move back. The incentives that the state has put together for grants, the Act 255 tax credit, has been a big boost for the state and investors, especially angel investment in the state. That has taken off quite nicely. Those kinds of things have helped a lot.

The state has expanded its tax credits to investors in life sciences and other tech startups this year, despite a drop in state tax revenue that officials blamed on the recession. How much of an effect will that have on life-sci startup creation?

I think it's going to have a large effect, and I can tell you from personal experience that it already had an impact on my former company, aOva Technologies. We had maxed out one of those caps. So to change the structure and get a couple of arbitrary caps changed that were in the old statute was a real bonus to companies that are still trying to raise that early-stage capital. So I think it's going to be very, very positive.

To what extent has the growth of the life sciences in Wisconsin been an issue of the state benefiting from past miscues by neighboring states like Illinois and Minnesota in seeking to assist startups?

I don't know if it has been necessarily miscues by those states, versus just a nice environment in Wisconsin. So maybe the policies and statutes, the programs that they have in the other two states just aren't as, maybe, robust as we've seen in Wisconsin. I know every state in the country is trying to grow their organization in the high-tech community.

Wisconsin has got a nice, maybe, leg up on its neighbors. But that's not to say we can sit back and rest on our laurels. We've got a long way to go. And especially when you look at us in comparison to the [East and West] Coasts, I think what you'd like to see is that there's some synergy between the corridors from the Twin Cities to Madison to Milwaukee to Chicago, and get not only Wisconsin involved, but those other two states as well.

Minnesota has worked in recent months to jumpstart its life-sci sector by embracing the Elk Run mega-project [BRN, Aug. 14], while Illinois has had some legislation pending that would expand its tax credits to investors, in part citing Wisconsin's success with Act 255 [BRN, April 6]. How much competitive pressure do those moves create for Wisconsin's life-sciences effort?

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I guess a couple of those things are still on the drawing board, but there's no doubt that any time those things are put into place, they're going to put competitive pressure on our state. But we still have location and convenience for the people that are going to start those companies in those areas. If we can build on what we have, our infrastructure is in good shape and we can continue to grow.

For BioForward itself, what plans do you have for growing the organization, either adding people or programs?

We're planning on adding programs and adding membership, and I think just beefing up what we can do for our membership. The other thing that has really taken off from the board side of the street the past couple of years is a larger advocacy and government relations effort, an existing and ongoing effort.

Can that effort be credited with the expansion of the tax credits?

In some respects, yes.

What other new programs or services can BioForward members expect?

I think that that's one of the things that the board has tasked me with going forward. The organization already has purchasing or buying consortia in place that they'd like to expand, and I think that there are some things that we can do there that would help our members out quite a bit. We're going to work on those things right away. Not a lot of specifics right now, but we've gotten a couple of ideas that we want to get going. And then, we're going to be looking at how we structure events for the organization and its members, and the advocacy things that we're doing on the state and national levels.

Any change to the organization's strategic plan?

I haven't gotten a chance to read the strategic plan yet. That question is up in the air.

Any particular types of members BioForward will focus on attracting?

I think more of all [types]. There doesn't seem to be a good handle statewide on how many … biotech or high-tech companies there are in the state. I don't know if anybody has a good handle on that, but the estimates are between 400 and 900. Obviously, if we only have 270 members, there's a lot of room for growth. And I think it would also be of interest to see what actually classifies as biotechnology, or people that actually might take advantage of an organization like ourselves.

What are the remaining legislative challenges that BioForward will work on? The state budget would seem to be one.

Yes. And then I think that there are some challenges on the national level, to, with SBIR reauthorization, and the look at some patent law changes. We will carry out advocacy there, to look out for those issues. Those and the budget will be the three main things that come to mind right off the top.

WARF and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have helped Madison's life-sci cluster grow historically. How is that cluster likely to evolve over the next several years?

The nice thing about Madison is the partnership between startups and the university, and the really strong research institution that you have with the university, I think that will continue to grow. The life sciences have been a strength historically, and I think it will continue to be that way. But I think there are other strengths: There is the medical device side. Nanotechnology is going to grow. Some people are still trying to get their hands around how that definition plays and covers new technology. But those are all there. We have a pretty big push on the medical software, with companies like Epic Systems, and then you have some clean tech in fuels … Those kinds of things are going to continue to go forward, just because of the strength of the institutions that you have, and then the cluster that you have.

From the educational side and then maybe some of the inventive side, the university would be the primary anchor, but now you have some other companies that are getting, I guess, into the large entity status. Historically you had Promega, but now you have Epic [Systems] and TomoTherapy. You've had some companies come in and purchase Wisconsin companies. Roche has come in and purchased NimbleGen, and Mirus Bio. Life Technologies is in town [Invitrogen, which had facilities in Madison and Milwaukee, acquired Applied Biosystems for $6.7 billion last year; the combined company has changed its name to Life Technologies — Ed.] Cardinal Health is in town with the purchase. Sigma is in town with a purchase. So all of those larger biotech entities have come in and snapped up some companies in the state, which makes us more of a player, I guess, from a national and international scale.

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