State, Skokie boost Illinois biotech sector

March 28, 2005


Illinois' emerging biotech industry got a boost from Gov. Blagojevich, Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen, and Chuck Ratner, CEO of Cleveland-based real estate developer Forrest City Enterprises. Thanks to these three, Skokie might someday rival Cambridge and San Diego as a biotech leader.

Forrest City paid $43 million to buy a former G.D. Searle property in downtown Skokie from Pfizer Corp. With $4 million in support from the state and $10 million in planned funding through the creation of a tax increment finance district in Skokie, Forrest City intends to develop the Illinois Technology Innovation Campus on the 23.4-acre site. Total development costs are estimated at $155 million.

The project is a critical effort that will help our region capitalize on our academic prowess in biotech R&D. Typically, Illinois biotech research has enriched other states as entrepreneurs incubated their businesses beyond our borders. Insufficient wet-lab space for emerging biotech companies was seen as a major constraint. Creation of the Technology Innovation Campus is expected to double available wet lab space for startup biotech companies.

Combined with the governor's $1 million support for the BIO2006 industry conference, there is mounting evidence Blagojevich is serious about growing Illinois biotech. The governor is also showing signs he can engage with corporate leaders to create "win-win" public-private partnerships to boost the state's economy.

Jack Lavin, director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, estimates more than 3,000 new jobs will be created in Skokie. Lavin predicts 1,000 construction jobs will be created and 10,000 additional jobs will result throughout Illinois.

"We expect this to have a favorable impact on the Illinois economy of $1.8 billion annually," Lavin says.

There are still hurdles. The governor's commitment requires passage of his 2006 capital budget. Skokie must hold public hearings, ratify the bond issue, and create the TIF district, in which new property-tax revenue from the facility is used to bolster infrastructure instead of going to schools, parks and other local taxing bodies.

"Gov. Blagojevich gave his commitment we would put this in the budget, and fight for it," says Lavin, who will brief legislators in April on a suite of important capital initiatives.

Skokie Mayor Van Dusen is enthusiastic. The project will bring more than $2 million in annual additional lunch hour spending within Skokie.

"The village board ratified the negotiations," says Van Dusen, who expects continued support when hearings are held. "The positive repercussions for the village and the state will be enormous," he adds.

University of Chicago assistant vice president Robert Rosenberg adds, "Forest City pioneered tech parks at MIT in the 1980s. They've been a leader ever since. Their investment and the support shown by state and local government has redoubled our confidence."

Gayle Farris, president of Forrest City's University Bioscience and Technology Group, is bullish.

"The Chicago area has tremendous potential to commercialize research," Farris says. She should know. She's spent the last 20 years driving Forrest City's MIT partnership. She'll lend an experienced hand in the creation of the new Technology Innovation Campus.

Microsoft powers non-profits

Michael Gorriaran, Microsoft's Midwest district general manager, today is expected to ink grants of $516,000 worth of software to two Chicago non-profits.

Metropolitan Family Services received $491,000 in software, while the Women's Business Development Center received $25,000 in software.

The grants help these organizations focus their resources on their core missions and not on new technology.

"Given the challenges facing our state, this grant allows us to complete a technology upgrade without touching our operating funds," says Metropolitan Family Services CEO Richard Jones.

Women's Business Development Center Co-President Hedy Ratner credits Microsoft Midwest community affairs manager Shelley Stern Grach.

"Shelley saw our technological capability was pretty poor," Ratner says. The current grant was the result.

Can we expect more support from Microsoft. You bet. "We're going to continue to look for other ways to contribute," Gorriaran says.

Michael Krauss is a Chicago area tech writer and consultant.



 ©2005 Marion Consulting Partners