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Finding Biotech in the Silicon Prairie

April 23, 2013
The Silicon Prairie is about more than technology companies and Internet start-ups. In fact, the biotech industry in Illinois employs nearly 80,000 people, according to a recent analysis by Battelle, and their salaries are double the salary of the average private sector worker in the state.

As biotech executives from across the globe descend upon McCormick Place this week for the annual BIO International Convention, they will have an opportunity to see that the Chicago area is home to a robust biotech hub made up of global companies, including AbbVie, Archer Daniels Midland, Astellas, Baxter and Takeda that have opted to locate their headquarters here. These companies have a huge positive impact on our region’s economic health, and they give us an incredible foundation on which to build.

One part “prairie” and one part city, Illinois is one of the few biotech hubs that can truly say we have diverse offerings. Biomedical, agricultural and industrial research is taking place at universities across the region — Northwestern, University of Illinois-Chicago and University of Chicago attract large federal grants for research and have become increasingly sophisticated about patenting and commercializing their inventions.

Through all these initiatives, Illinois is helping to heal sick patients, fuel our cars and trucks with biofuels and feed the world through innovative agricultural research.

Even with our success, we can do more to build on our university infrastructure, big pharma headquarters, innovators research and start-up companies. We often lose some of our technology to the coasts where they get funded and built or the companies don’t materialize.

What can be done to tip the scales in our favor?

Investment in biotechnology is a risk. It can take up to 10 years and more than a billion dollars to create just one biotech-based therapy or treatment. More often than not, biotech companies find themselves in the red while they wait to create the next breakthrough drug that has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives.

A biotechnology center that brings together ideas, entrepreneurs, universities, bio pharma, venture capital, community support and investors can help by bringing together the key elements to help an entrepreneur succeed. We can also play to our own strengths and continue to grow the biotech industry here in Chicago and across the state. Efforts like CIM, headed by John Flavin and the PROPEL Center are educating entrepreneurs and focusing on start-ups We are also now beginning to do more to attract early-stage venture capital.

Meanwhile, a host of public investments is providing seed capital and tax credits to aid new companies in development. The Mayor’s recently announced ChicagoNEXT initiatives and other programs he has started are also having an impact on attracting new biotechs to the city and encouraging start ups. Mayor Emanuel is dedicated to attracting biotech and other technology companies to the area. These cutting-edge programs are all about tipping the scales in our favor by attracting talent, raising our local tech profile and connecting entrepreneurs with the local business community.

This week’s event will be an important opportunity for us to showcase these strengths and to build upon our momentum.

Jeffrey Aronin is the Chairman & CEO of Paragon Pharmaceuticals.