Growing biotech in Minnesotaby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
State leaders believe the growing biotech industry could be a big part of the future of Minnesota cities. Local leaders and politicians focused on biotech at a conference Tuesday in St. Cloud. Leaders from central Minnesota cities, colleges and businesses learned an educated workforce is key to attracting medical device makers and drug companies to their communities. At least one school in the region is already working to prepare students for careers in the biosciences.
St. Cloud, Minn. — Students in a noisy machine shop at St. Cloud Technical College are learning the finer points of metal machining. A student stands in front of a hulking piece of equipment. As a coffee can-sized metal cylinder spins on a lathe, a drill bit slowly bores its way through the steel.
Instructors at St. Cloud Technical College are developing similar hands-on training to prepare students for jobs in the biotech industry.
Bruce Peterson, the college's dean of trade and industry, says the school is set to launch a curriculum on micromachining this fall.
"Micromachining is actually making the miniature components that go into medical devices," Peterson says.
Students will use computer-controlled equipment to make tiny parts for devices like pacemakers. They'll learn how to make pistons not much wider than a human hair, or valves about as big as head of a pin.
Jonathan Parker, the dean of academic and student affairs at St. Cloud Technical College, sees biotech as the next big thing for Minnesota.
His school is beginning to focus on preparing a highly skilled workforce needed to produce medical devices or pharmaceuticals.
"As we raise the bar in areas like mathematics, in areas like biology, chemistry, those related areas, then we expect to produce technicians who are the underpinning of this industry," says Parker.
That expert workforce is key if Minnesota is going to play a major role in the expansion of the biotech industry, according to Dr. Eric Wieben with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Wieben is part of an effort to encourage expansion of bioscience in Minnesota.
"Initially we'll be working from the higher levels of education. But there's already been discussion about starting biosciences education in the state as far back as elementary school," says Wieben.
For now, the work behind bioscience is mainly happening in Rochester and the Twin Cities. That's where, in 2004, the state set up areas with tax incentives, called bioscience zones, to encourage groups to work on research.
Wieben says the research side of the industry will mostly stay in Rochester and the Twin Cities. But when it comes to manufacturing a new drug or medical device, the rest of the state should be involved.
"Those activities can actually be developed anywhere within the state, and actually have been developed across the state," says Wieben.
Wieben would like to see government initiatives, in the form of tax breaks, for cities across the state to lure new or expanding biotech companies.
At the Central Minnesota Bioscience Conference in St. Cloud, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said the state is willing to help communities outside of Rochester and the Twin Cities attract biotech companies.
Pawlenty said there's about $2 million left from the last bonding bill, that could be used to offset taxes for companies willing to set up shop outside of the metro area.
Pawlenty said there will be more money available in the future, but it's up to communities to make their case.
"There's a pot of money just sitting there. You want it? What's the plan? How are you going to use it? What would you do with it?" Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty encouraged community leaders to work with local universities to create challenging programs to attract creative and innovative students -- the people who will be future leaders in the biotech industry.
St. Cloud city leaders say the biotech conference was essentially their declaration that St. Cloud wants to become one of the state's biotech centers.
If that's the case, the city can expect some competition. There are similar conferences planned for Worthington and Mankato in coming months.
- All Things Considered, 02/07/2006, 5:20 p.m.