Anatomy Of A BioTech Failure

On paper, Dane County seems like the perfect place to build a cluster of businesses around the cutting edge bio-technology research of  UW-Madison’s long celebrated College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. But as the city’s failed effort to launch the BioLink greenhouse project shows, there are a hots of compelling reasons why the project never found tenants or solved a financing gap, despite securing a $4.5 million federal grant. As I wrote in this Isthmus story, those reasons included the campus never embracing the city project:

Michael Gay, the city’s former coordinator for business development, is the guy credited with landing the federal grant. He says that while Madison has dropped the ball on bio-ag, other communities like Orlando, St. Louis and even Saskatoon (in Canada!) have moved forward on agricultural biotechnology. “It’s all about community partnerships,” he says of their advances.

Gay talks gently on this point, but others don’t. The UW, the source of so much extraordinary agricultural research, never stepped up to the plate on BioLink. It’s the familiar complaint, warranted or not, that the campus does not play well with others.

Some fault the leadership at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences for turning its back on BioLink. But reality is that the college had far bigger fish to fry: launching the federally funded $125 million Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. “BioLink was not a project that CALS was vested in,” admits Rick Lindroth, CALS’s associate dean for research. “It was not critical to our vision.”

While the University Research Park provided BioLink planners with technical support, director Mark Bugher says his team is focused on developing a new 371-acre research park on the west side. “It caught us at a bad time,” he says of BioLink. “My comment internally was that we needed this distraction like we needed a hole in the head. It’s unfortunate. I feel badly about it. The city had an opportunity, but there are some lessons to be learned.”

Successful projects require “a purpose and use that everybody agrees is needed,” he points out. “And people have got to come together.”

But it’s telling that Bugher also acknowledges that Madison leaders are going in “eight different directions” on tech development.

 

To read more, please go here.

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