A better economy through science

New North bioscience companies keep region near the top of the industry

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

December 2010

If the milk you had with your Cheerios this morning didn’t make you hurl, you can thank bioscience for that.

If it stayed contained neatly in its bottle, bag or carton when you brought it home from the Save-O-Rama, you can thank bioscience for that.

And if your plastic jug bore a nice, easy-to-read label, you can thank bioscience for that, too.
Bioscience is defined as “the intersection of biology and technology” by Wisconsin BioForward executive director Bryan Renk. 

That can encompass quite a lot — practically everything from the food we eat to its packaging is impacted by the field.
“We think biotechnology is a growth field,” Renk said. “We saw a 3 percent increase (in number of jobs) in a 5-year span, while other industries saw a 3 percent decrease.”

Quantifying bioscience

BioForward released a study this fall showing that the New North region is No. 3 in the state in bioscience-related jobs, with the greater Madison and greater Milwaukee areas on top. 

The study ranked parts of the state in terms of bioscience industries, including number of companies, employers, employees, amount of revenue and even salaries. 

“We wanted to solidify the definition of bioscience in Wisconsin,” Renk said. “We wanted to be able to say ‘This is how many jobs there are,’ and ‘Is there growth?’”

Some 24,000 people in the state work in private-sector bioscience-related jobs, a number that increased by 19 percent between 2004 and 2009, according to the study. It’s a $7 billion industry in the state, and it generates taxes of $614 million. More than 640 bioscience businesses in Wisconsin operate at more than 750 sites.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Workforce Development did the analysis, which is called “The Contribution of the Bioscience Industry to the Wisconsin Economy.”

Here’s more on how things shake out, according to the study:

Rolling in at No. 1: The greater Milwaukee area (seven counties around Milwaukee) contributes $951.8 million to the economy each year. More than 12,000 people in the greater Milwaukee area are employed in its 294 bioscience-related companies.

At No. 2: The greater Madison area (eight counties around Madison) takes in $473.9 million in bioscience-related dollars. More than 7,300 people work in its 184 bioscience-related establishments in the greater Madison area.

At No. 3: The New North region takes in more than $117 million in revenue and employs 2,500 people at its 118 bioscience-related entities. 

“We think this is a conservative estimate,” Renk said of the overall state numbers, adding that he believes there are many more businesses in Wisconsin that weren’t counted, due to the limitations of the study.

The North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) coding system used to categorize and tally the number of bioscience jobs doesn’t include everyone.

“Since bioscience is relatively new to the world, many entities not considered bioscientific five years ago when they were coded might be considered bioscientific today,” Renk said.

For example, cheesemaking, winemaking and beermaking don’t fall into the NAICS code of bioscience and therefore those jobs aren’t counted.

“They’re big enough to have their own category,” Renk said.

But they definitely use bioscience, Renk said, because of the fermentation and culturing processes.

“If (the study) did include beer-, cheese- and winemaking, northeastern Wisconsin numbers would be dramatically bigger,” Renk said.

Another reason the study put the New North at somewhat of a disadvantage: the southern part of the state has the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“All of the attention, when there’s a discovery about stem cells or something, goes to Madison,” said Jerry Murphy, executive director of The New North, Inc. “We don’t have a research center in our backyard. So (research) isn’t our forte.”

The complete study can be found on Wisconsin BioForward’s Web site, wisconsinbiotech.org.

So what is bioscience? Literally defined, bioscience means the system of studying the natural world. Renk tends to use it interchangeably with biotechnology. For all practical purposes, the four categories of bioscience industries categorized as such by the NAICS are:

  • Agriculture, chemicals and feedstock
  • Drugs and pharmaceuticals ? Medical devices and equipment
  • Research, testing and medical laboratories

Information technology and high-tech manufacturing are examples of industries that don’t involve bioscience, according to Renk.

“We can definitely play in this marketspace, and the reason I am confident we can is that we already are,” Murphy said.
One just has to look at the terrain of the New North region to chart the evolution of such industries in Wisconsin.

“This is a marketplace that was based on woody biomass as fiber,” Murphy said.

Lumbering and farming are at the root of Wisconsin’s economy, with papermaking, dairy, fertilizer, biofuel and food processing as natural offshoots.

“If you think of all of the markets New North has an interest in, they are all fundamentally anchored in who we are. When you talk about the bioscience-based or bio-based market, you almost have to think about the landscape of the New North, and where most of that (enterprise) goes is food production – the dairy industry, food processing, meat, etc. and even the science around packaging,” Murphy said.

Even the science behind biofuels goes hand-in-hand with production of food and production of paper. “It’s a different track, but it is fundamentally anchored to who we are,” Murphy said of biofuel production.

Corny way to make a living

Utica Energy, LLC, of Pickett just west of Oshkosh, makes corn-based ethanol from area sources. It also makes animal feed products, both wet and dry, and liquid carbon dioxide for industries that quick-freeze items or use dry ice. Among its 52 employees are a couple engineers and a microbiologist. That’s atypical, according to Chief Operating Officer Tobin Johnson.

“We apply technology better than most ethanol makers,” Johnson said. “In ethanol plants it’s really unusual to have that kind of talent.” Utica has tweaked its fermentation processes to run without antibiotics, widening the marketplace for its animal feed products.

“It allows us to sell our feed in Europe,” Johnson said. “It’s a competitive advantage.”

About half the nation’s ethanol plants use antibiotics to tamp down bacteria in the ethanol production, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy of Minneapolis. The problem with that is antibiotics end up in the animal feed products made by ethanol producers. The Food and Drug Administration has lobbied Congress for some 30 years to ban antibiotics in animal feed products and water but has not been successful, according to a June 2010 New York Times article. 

Utica is Wisconsin’s northern-most ethanol producer, Johnson said, so it’s closer to corn markets north of the plant.
“That gives us an advantage transportation-wise,” he said. “The Fox Valley is a big user (of ethanol used in gasoline formulas).”

Johnson said Utica will continue to pursue technology, including ways of making its corn feed higher in protein and possibly also branching into cellulosic ethanol production, which uses grasses, wood and plant fibers to make ethanol.
Politicians talk about helping business in the United States, and farmers often get overlooked.

“One of our strongest small businesses is the farmer,” Johnson said. “If we could focus more on growing farms and helping farmers, we could have a stronger biofuel industry. Eventually I hope we will become like Brazil, more energy independent. If we had a stronger emphasis on biofuels here, maybe we wouldn’t have to fight so hard for (oil) in the Middle East.” 

Johnson has a master’s degree in chemistry and managed plants for Dow Chemicals for 25 years before coming to Utica.

Food needs to be tested

Northland Laboratories in Green Bay does a lot of shelf-life testing and studies on food items, particularly dairy and meat. 

“Our clients by and large are large food manufacturers,” said Kami Fusco, vice president of operations at Northland Laboratories.

Northland does microbiological testing for food safety and quality, and wet chemical testing to determine the components of the food – fat, moisture, salt, acidity, Fusco said.

Northland also does challenge studies: running a product through a variety of conditions that a customer might do, such as leave an item in a hot car, to determine food safety.

“If I abuse this product, expose it to an elevated temperature, what effect will it have chemically on this product?” Fusco said. 

Many companies around the state offer similar testing, but Northland is among the few that are certified to test for phosphatase, an indicator of whether or not milk has been pasteurized properly.

“Having a local dairy lab, we can consult on site,” Fusco said. 

Some larger food processing companies have their own in-house labs, but testing for pathogens really shouldn’t be done onsite, Fusco said. 

“Most internal labs don’t test for everything; if there’s a special need, they will call a contract lab,” she said.

Fusco said her company has seen steady increases in demand, even in a down economy and even when California is calling itself the new dairy state. 

“California may produce cheese, but Wisconsin produces better cheese,” Fusco said.

Fusco said the increase in artisan cheesemakers in the area in recent years has added to demand for Northland Laboratories’ services.

Northland’s employees range from technicians with associates degrees to those with master’s degrees. Between its Green Bay site and another in Illinois, it employs 70 people.

Vitamin S is for Science

Dr. Bob Doster is senior vice president of scientific affairs at Schwabe International dietary supplement maker in Green Bay, parent company of Nature’s Way and Enzymatic Therapy brands.

Schwabe is regulated the same way pharmaceutical companies are regulated – that is, even more strictly than food companies.

“You are designing products that are taken for some specific health purpose that you have to know is correct,” Doster said. “You have to know you are delivering that purpose with proper attention paid to safety and proper attention paid to regulatory requirements.” 

Doster has three degrees in food science, including a Ph.D in food science and nutrition. He did graduate work in pharmacology and toxicology, and he worked for large companies like Carnation and Clorox on the West Coast. He headed research and development on well-known brands such as Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing, KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce, and Kingsford charcoal before coming to Green Bay.

“Having worked in the food field and managed product development in large companies, this (dietary supplement industry) is way, way, way more difficult; there’s more technical depth and scientific depth to execute and execute well,” Doster said.

“If you are developing a new pudding, you don’t care about the bioavailability of the phytonutrients in the cocoa that’s in the pudding; you just care that it tastes like good chocolate,” Doster said. “We care about nutrients down to their unique chemical entities. In making products with plant sources of nutrients, we are concerned with, ‘Is the nutrient there and is it bioavailable and is it stable?’ The person making pudding may not care about that.”

Not having other supplement or pharmaceutical companies around northeast Wisconsin is a blessing and a curse. The good side is that other companies aren’t pirating your employees, Doster said. The bad side is that finding employees who are experienced in pharmaceuticals here is tougher. 

“When I recruit people for product development, I don’t have a large local pool for that,” Doster said. “I have to go out of state, or I have to train them. It’s more difficult than if I were in Utah (which has dozens of supplement companies) and could just call up a head hunter and ask for five hungry candidates.”

Above-average salaries

Bioscience jobs are higher paying than average, by a long shot. 

“The average employee in Wisconsin makes $42,117 per year, while the average bioscience-sector dude makes $69,096 per year,” Renk said. Numbers geeks, do your math: that’s 64 percent more for the bioscience dude.

But you don’t necessarily need a doctorate to enjoy an above-average career, according to Renk. 

“The nice thing is it doesn’t take a Ph.D scientist to do this work,” Renk said. “It does take several levels of skill. You might have a chief science officer and a lab manager who are Ph.Ds and a research technician who has a master’s degree. There are lab technicians that have training and background in bioscience (but not post-graduate degrees).”
He said many technical colleges in the state have added or upgraded their biotechnology-technician programs.

Doster illustrates the demand for scientists with a real-life anecdote. His daughter studies food science at the University of Wisconsin and even as a junior is seeing firsthand how employable food scientists are. She’s already had a handful of offers for summer internships for next year.

“(Companies) are competing for these kids on a very aggressive basis,” Doster said. “The pay is very, very good; it’s staggering what they pay these kids, even with little if any industry experience.”

But the downside of food science is that the prospect of jobs and money draws students into food science programs they ultimately can’t handle. 

“This is a very, very difficult curriculum. It’s extremely exciting work but it’s not for the faint of heart,” Doster said. “Unless a kid is scientifically oriented, it’s very difficult to get through.”

An alumna of Ripon College, Lee Marie Reinsch is a freelance writer based in Green Bay.