Officials with UW-Madison, the biohealth industry and the state’s economic development agency announced the launch of a new biomanufacturing initiative Thursday to enhance opportunities for Wisconsin researchers and entrepreneurs.
The collaborative effort, dubbed the Forward BIO Initiative, aims to build a shared laboratory space for startup biomanufacturers within University Research Park on Madison’s West Side, while also establishing the Forward BIO Institute at UW-Madison to foster public-private relationships, support research, train students and help with the commercialization of new technologies.
Biomanufacturing is the creation of advanced health care-related products, such as engineered tissues and cell therapies.
Experts in the field hailed the initiative as a game-changer, saying it could make Madison the Midwest leader in the biohealth industry.
“It is always fun to launch a new project, but it is particularly exciting to launch a new project that has the potential to bring discoveries out of the lab and into the marketplace where they can really change lives, even save lives,” UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said at a launch event for the initiative.
The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation awarded a $750,000 grant to BioForward Wisconsin — a biohealth industry advocacy organization — to help with the laboratory space.
The initiative consists of three parts — the Forward BIO Institute, Forward BIOLABS and BioForward Wisconsin — aimed at supporting the entire development path of biomanufactured products, such as early-stage research and economic development, said Bill Murphy, a UW-Madison professor of biomedical engineering and orthopedics.
Murphy will head up the institute as its director. He said the university will hire three new faculty members to work in the institute, which will staff between 10 and 15 people.
The university also intends to create a master’s degree program focused on biomanufacturing innovation that Murphy said is expected to begin enrolling students for the fall 2019 semester.
The institute at UW-Madison will be supported through the university’s College of Engineering, Grainger Institute for Engineering, School of Veterinary Medicine, School of Medicine and Public Health, and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education.
“Our new collaborative approach will increase the likelihood that new discoveries made in biomanufacturing will benefit the state of Wisconsin economically and benefit the world technologically,” Murphy said.
The shared laboratory space is expected to provide 8,700 square feet to accommodate up to 20 scientists, according to WEDC.
The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation has provided $200,000 as initial seed funding for the laboratory facility, said Erik Iverson, managing director of WARF, while fundraising will also be necessary.
In the past year, WARF, the patenting and technology transfer arm for UW-Madison, has spun-off about a dozen companies with the majority of them in biotechnology, Iverson said.
Jessica Martin Eckerly, co-founder of Forward BIOLABS, said the grant from WEDC will go toward purchasing equipment for the new laboratory, which will serve as a “landing place for early-stage startups.”
With its roots going back to 1987, BioForward Wisconsin will act in an outreach capacity to grow the biomanufacturing industry in the state.
Lisa Johnson, CEO of BioForward Wisconsin, said the idea for the initiative has been in discussion and development for the past two years.
According to WEDC, Wisconsin has 1,900 companies in the biohealth sector that employ 44,000 people.