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Leader in Biotech Breakthrough? Illinois Cements Its Status As An Innovator.

Learn how innovative Illinois biotechnology companies are changing the face of pharmaceutical, biopharma and clean energy industries.

By Teree Caruthers on February 2, 2016

Illinois / Courtesy of Craig Dugan Photography © Takeda Pharmaceuticals

With its roots in agricultural and manufacturing innovation and a long history of technological breakthroughs in biotechnology, chemistry and physics, Illinois is a breeder reactor of advancement in medicines, medical devices, nutritional products, and environmental solutions. The state’s robust biotech industry contributes close to $100 billion and 81,000 jobs to the Illinois economy. Even with an impressive roster of biotech and life sciences companies like Abbott Laboratories, Astellas and Baxter Healthcare already calling Illinois home, the state continues to investment from established companies and create the ideal environment for biotech startups. Those companies include LanzaTech, which relocated its headquarters from New Zealand to the Illinois Science + Technology park in Skokie in early 2014. LanzaTech operates a carbon recycling platform that takes waste emissions, essentially pollution and converts into fuels and chemicals.

“We’re an Illinois company, but we’re building our first commercial plants in China, Belgium and Taiwan,” says Freya Burton, LanzaTech communications director. “When this all comes to fruition, that’s going to be quite a big deal. There are not many companies that are at the commercial stage. There are plenty in the demo or the R&D phase, but they’re still in the lab. Getting to the commercial [stage] is pretty big.”

Smart Surroundings

Burton credits some of the company’s success to the decision to locate to the Illinois Science + Technology Park, which serves as a hub for emerging biotech advances. The park features more than 500,000 square feet of lab and office space and is home to the Technology Innovation Center incubator for lab-based startups.

“For us a key factor was location,” Burton says. “It’s an excellent place that not only has already attracted many other clean energy or bio-energy companies. It’s a place where potential customers tend to go through. The move was about putting ourselves in the best position to take our clean energy solution to market.With its diverse economy, highly skilled workforce, and easy access to the rest of the world Illinois is an ideal location for us to continue our journey to commercialization.”

“In simple terms, the pure logistics of bringing supplies in is easier. When we were located in New Zealand, it proved difficult bringing supplies to the other side of the world. Here you’ve got suppliers; you’ve got other companies. It just makes life a lot easier when you’re working in a laboratory on a time constraint to get things in.”

Formula for Success

Michael Stevens, president and CEO of Lake County Partners, an economic development organization, says the state’s vast talent pool also plays a role in attracting technology companies. Lake County, north of Chicago, is home to a number of biotech heavy hitters, including Pfizer, Takeda and Horizon Pharma.

“We’ve got a tremendous labor pool, both highly skilled, educated researchers, technical skilled folks, as well as the other requirements that are needed to run a major corporation or growing a biopharma company,” Stevens says.

“The central location of Illinois and Chicago and the Lake County area is another big driver for attracting companies and the people they need. The third-biggest asset is the cluster of existing investment that we have. Some of the smaller companies want to be here and invest here because they want to be part of this energy that arise from the existing investment we have.” Stevens says another advantage of having a cluster of successful firms is the tendency to spin off other new businesses not only within the biotech industry but in support industries as well. He cites biopharma companies Baxalta, a spinoff of Baxter International, and AbbVie, a spinoff of Abbott with a portfolio of some 40 medications, as examples.

Bio-Tech Savvy

The state’s network of R&D facilities, research universities, government and nonprofit research institutions has contributed to the incredible breakthroughs in the identification and treatment of diseases. A few notable successes include Northbrook-based Marathon Pharmaceuticals, which received the FDA’s rare pediatric disease designation for a potential treatment for patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and  Evanston-based Preora Diagnostics Inc, which plans to introduce low-cost cancer pre-screening tests at the primary care level. “Illinois has a really interesting biotech and clean energy ecosystem. There are a number of [helpful] programs  here — for example, the Clean Tech Innovation Bridge and Clean Energy Trust, which is an independent charity that launches, funds and grows early-stage clean energy businesses in the Midwest through direct investment, venture development and advocacy,” Burton says.

“There are a lot of links to groups or initiatives that really help support this growing biotech/clean tech industry in Illinois. That’s really important for companies when they’re considering where they’re going to be based.” “The Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity works hard to make sure those biotech companies have the resources from the state that they need to grow,” Stevens adds. “It’s a business-friendly environment. The Department of Commerce not only offers incentives for companies, but they try to help with workforce development, and they’re also looking at funding innovation and finding opportunities for the smaller companies to grow.”

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