Biotech gives the state good reason to cheer

December 19, 2005


Next year will be the year of biotech in Chicago. In less than four months BIO2006, the global biotech industry conference, arrives at McCormick Place. Local business leaders, academics and government officials believethe show, which runs April 9-12, will spark a new era in economic development.

Building on our base of commercial goliaths such as Abbott and Baxter and the R&D that grows in labs at the University of Illinois, IIT, University of Chicago, Northwestern and Argonne, they hope Illinois will spawn a new generation of entrepreneurial biotech companies.

Beyond traditional pharmaceutical products and medical devices, organizers of BIO2006 tout Chicago's deep organic roots in agriculture, food processing and environmental science. They say that industry breadth could push Illinois into the forefront of this growth industry.

There's one more reason the future looks bright in Illinois biotech. Like Silicon Valley, the kids are getting engaged.

A pep rally for BIO2006 a few days back took place in a lecture hall, not a gymnasium, at the University of Chicago's Gleacher Center. No cheerleaders or brass bands, just plenty of bearded scientists, Brooks Brothers-clad business executives and government officials. Instead of coaches and athletes, they listened to tech vets from Philadelphia, Toronto and San Diego -- prosperous past hosts of the BIO show -- who shared their secrets for success.

Strange things were brewing in the back row. There was no illicit alcohol, yet spirits were high. Amidst the grey hairs were some kids; real kids -- 16- and 17-year-olds -- who belong at real pep rallies. The kids were all lit up. It was the rumble of ideas and possibilities that turned them on.

The 11 teens were from IMSA, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora. They're among our most gifted math and science students. They came to hear and critique the proceedings.

Why invite the kids? "Biotech is a young industry," said Ray Briscuso Jr., a consultant and BIO2006 organizer. "The technology is amazing today. Tomorrow it is going to be astonishing. The future is in these students' hands."

The University of Chicago's Bob Rosenberg, organizer of the rally, aims to create life-changing events. "The legacy of BIO2006 is defining biotech in Illinois," Rosenberg said. "Not only for old folks -- it's about getting the kids excited and in contact with today's brilliant minds and industry leaders."

Equal partners

The kids thought the rally was cool, and they want to participate as equals in the BIO2006 show.

"I come from a farming family, and the technology is welcome." said IMSA junior Everett Brokaw, who's from Monmouth.

"I didn't know there was an industry in Peoria," said junior Stephanie Chang, who was pumped to hear of biotech's potential in her home town.

Oak Park junior Ehiwe Akhigbe wants local high school students to notice BIO2006. "I don't know that much about biotechnology, but it was interesting," Akhigbe said.

Freeport sophomore Forrest Iandola said he thought the presenters stumbled. He wants to promote Illinois biotech. "Give us more opportunities to develop and market the show," Iandola said.

Vernon Hills junior Caleb Wang was all energy. "It's happening so fast in Chicago," said Wang, who wants to connect Chicago bioscience with China.

Bloomington junior Young Hong Ip already does biomedical research at IIT. Ip says we need more investment and business partnerships. "You have all this university research but nobody is bringing it to the public," Ip lamented.

IMSA associate principal Hector Munoz said he knows the kids from Silicon Prairie can be great innovators. "They haven't been beaten up," he said. "They think they can make a difference -- and they can."

Added IMSA coordinator Michelle Kolar, "They are eager to get involved in the community."

As Briscuso concluded, "There might be a superstar waiting to form a new company right there in the back row." Silicon Valley's not the only place where kids can rule in tech.

SA honors two

Scientific American has honored two Illinois scientists. Northwestern University's Samuel Stump and University of Illinois' John A. Rogers made the SA 50, a list of the year's top science and tech contributors. California placed nine scientists on the list.

Michael Krauss is a Chicago area tech writer and consultant.



 ©2005 Marion Consulting Partners