Minnesota angles to become diabetes industry leaderby Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Chance brought Lisa Jansa to Minnesota from Massachusetts. Now the CEO of a diabetes research company, Jansa says Minnesota's wealth of resources and expertise in the disease will make her stay.
"We think there's going to be growth and focus and a lot of opportunity here as it relates to diabetes," said Jansa, whose company, Exsulin, is working on a compound with the same name that's designed to regenerate insulin-producing cells in diabetes patients.
Exsulin is one of more than a dozen small companies based in Minnesota dedicated to some aspect of diabetes. And dozens more Minnesota companies have included diabetes in their work in recent years as the epidemic grows.
So far, only some who follow the diabetes industry have identified Minnesota as a leader. The East Coast is home to some of the pharmaceutical giants working on diabetes, and many companies offering glucose monitoring and other diabetes products are located in California.
"A lot of times Minnesota is considered flyover zone, and it's really unfortunate because there's quite a lot here," said Cheryl Matter, senior program manager for the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota.
But that impression is changing, in part because business leaders, researchers and state officials together have reached out to businesses and individuals elsewhere. Last summer, biotechnology professionals attending an international conference in Washington, D.C., were handed copies of a full-color booklet with a photo of the Mississippi River and Minneapolis skyline on the front.
"Minnesota is taking on diabetes. Come join us!" the cover of the brochure reads. Inside, readers learn about the Decade of Discovery, a partnership between the Mayo Clinic and University of Minnesota launched in 2010 with the goal of preventing, treating and ultimately curing diabetes within 10 years.
The booklet also lists some of Minnesota's other assets, such as being a leader in health care and medical device technology.
Sarah Walbert, who follows the bioscience and medical device industries for the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, said the goal was to drive business in the area of diabetes.
"If we can highlight our strengths in diabetes, and several members of this alliance become well-known among East Coast drug companies and we can help promote that, then we're driving clients to them," she said.
Attracting companies to relocate or establish themselves in Minnesota would be ideal, but Walbert said that's difficult without the kind of cash incentives other states are offering. Minnesota does have a research and development tax credit, as well as a new angel tax credit to encourage investment in startups.
Adding small efforts to promote the message that Minnesota is a leader in diabetes can go a long way, Walbert said.
"Nobody else has claimed to be the leader, so let's go ahead and claim it and then start building on that image in every way we can," she said.
Already, Minnesota businesses including Exsulin have made connections with researchers, business leaders and government officials in Saudi Arabia through a trip the BioBusiness Alliance organized last January. And Walbert has received calls from people in other states and countries interested in connecting with Mayo's diabetes research.
The BioBusiness Alliance and LifeScience Alley, Minnesota trade groups representing the larger life science and biotechnology sector, have been working to encourage collaboration among companies interested in various aspects of diabetes — prevention, treatment and a cure.
"Minnesota has the assets to be able to make a huge difference for this horrible, growing problem," said Dana Boyle, LifeScience Alley's vice president of community engagement. "If we pull them together and do a good job, we can come up with solutions that will benefit everybody."
LifeScience Alley organized a diabetes summit in 2010 and has brought business leaders, policy makers, researchers and others together quarterly through the Diabetes Leadership Roundtable.
FROM MEDTRONIC TO GENERAL MILLS
The economic impact of the diabetes industry in Minnesota hasn't been quantified, but the potential is clear. The number of people being diagnosed with diabetes and pre-diabetes is growing rapidly. The disease affects about 26 million U.S. adults, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts the number could double or triple by 2050.
The epidemic is growing rapidly in other areas of the world, too, including the Middle East, China and India. Without a cure, the global market for diabetes treatment and management tools is growing.
"Most of the large established players have shifted their resources, so they're investing more in these therapeutic areas," said Debbie Wang, an analyst for Morningstar who follows the medical technology industry.
Drug companies small and large are putting resources into research and development of new classes of diabetic drugs, and medical device companies like Minnesota-based Medtronic are investing in glucose monitoring technology to help diabetes patients better control their disease, Wang said.
Medtronic acquired the California-based diabetes firm MiniMed in 2001, and diabetes has become the medical device company's fifth-largest business and one of its fastest growing. Medtronic is a leading manufacturer of insulin pumps and a device that can monitor glucose levels continuously. Most of the company's employees working in diabetes remain located in California.
Medtronic technology that senses glucose levels and automatically administers or stops administering insulin is already available in Europe and is driving growth for the company, spokeswoman Amanda Sheldon said.
"We're very excited about all the potential we have," she said. "There are a variety of avenues, in terms of product innovation and continuing to expand globally."
Medtronic isn't the only major Minnesota-based company that's made diabetes a bigger part of its business in recent years.
Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group in 2010 launched the Diabetes Prevention and Control Alliance to respond to the disease. Since then, the health insurance company has worked with pharmacies and community groups to coach and support two groups of UnitedHealth and Medica-covered patients: those at risk for diabetes and those already dealing with the disease.
The programs are available in nearly 50 markets in 24 states and will expand to additional sites this year, the company said.
Even Minnesota food companies like General Mills are joining the response to diabetes with revamped products like whole-grain and reduced-sugar cereals.
On the opposite side of the size spectrum, smaller companies such as UltiMed — which designs and manufactures syringes and packaging for safe disposal of them — continue to base their operations in Minnesota.
Consultants have also found value in being based in Minnesota.
Anne Nettles, a nurse who teaches health care professionals how to care for diabetes patients through seminars and training programs, said it's easy for her to keep up to date on the latest diabetes treatments and management tools because the experts are all close by. That's helped as she consults with people from other states or countries, she said.
"It gives me credibility," Nettles said.