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Wisconsin’s biohealth industry is growing quickly, fostering innovation

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped fuel the growth of the state's biohealth sector

An employee examines COVID-19 tests.
An employee examines COVID-19 tests. The pandemic has helped accelerate the growth of Wisconsin’s biohealth industry. Jeremias Gonzalez/AP Photo

Over the last four years, Wisconsin’s biohealth industry has grown and become a leading economic driver for the state.

Last year, it had an economic impact of $32 billion and generated $1.2 billion in state and local taxes, according to a recent third-party report released by the BioForward Wisconsin advocacy group.

The report says job growth in the industry significantly outpaced the state’s overall job growth rate since 2018. However, advocates say investment in higher education is essential for the sector’s continued growth.

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Biohealth includes industries like academic research, pharmaceuticals, technology development, manufacturing and digital health.

While Wisconsin saw private sector jobs decline by 2.7 percent from 2018 to 2021, the biohealth industry saw job growth of 10.6 percent, the report said.

The sector employs about 52,000 people, with an average annual wage of $96,000, according to the study. In addition, the report said the full impact of biohealth employment reaches almost 129,000 jobs throughout Wisconsin.

Although primarily concentrated around Madison and Milwaukee, the sector has an impact on several regions across the state, including Green Bay, Sheboygan, Eau Claire and La Crosse, according to the report.

BioForward Wisconsin CEO Lisa Johnson said biohealth is helping to drive innovation and lead the state’s recovery from the pandemic.

“This strong growth, high wages, expanding career opportunities and impressive innovation in the biohealth sector are just what the state needs amidst current economic challenges and headwinds,” she said.

Johnson attributed part of the biohealth industry’s prosperity to the COVID-19 pandemic. When other areas of the economy were shrinking during the early days of the pandemic, she said the state’s biohealth industry continued expanding.

That growth was driven by biomedical research and testing, drugs and pharmaceuticals as well as biomedical distribution, according to the report.

“Many of our companies pivoted towards COVID, which we could do here in Wisconsin,” Johnson said. “We were involved in reagents that went in COVID testing kits. Exact Sciences (Laboratories, LLC) tested those results from all of us that were getting tested. And we had companies doing vaccine and therapeutics testing.”

One business that saw gains during the pandemic is the Middleton-based Gilson, Inc., a manufacturer in the life sciences industry that employs 140 people in the United States and 800 globally.

Gilson CEO Nicolas Paris said the company helped provide items needed to increase COVID-19 testing capacity and saw “incredible activity” around creating vaccines and treatments.

“For a company like Gilson, with all of the (investment) in the research, that impact has been very noticeable,” Paris said. “The impact of being able not only to invent treatment, (but) manufacture treatment has been tremendous as well. All the bio-manufacturing and manufacturing products have been in high demand.”

Johnson said the industry’s growth could help Wisconsin better attract and retain educated workers.

“We should be able to develop an educated workforce here and be able to keep them here with industries like the biohealth industry, where there are jobs available for that highly educated workforce,” she said.

To continue growing biohealth in Wisconsin, Johnson said the state needs to support higher education.

“The only way that companies will expand here is if they think they can get the talent,” she said. “If we can’t get the talent, they’ll go elsewhere.”

In fact, the state’s higher education system is a major reason the industry is thriving, according to Dr. Zachary Morris, a researcher and associate professor for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health.

He said colleges and universities throughout Wisconsin are producing the highly-skilled workers that the biohealth sector needs, and research being done at those institutions also is helping to strengthen the industry.

“The universities, through the faculty, are in many cases steering or developing innovative technologies that these companies are then helping to spin out and commercialize,” he said.

Paris had similar sentiments about the role of higher education in biohealth. He said more needs to be done to increase the number of qualified candidates in Wisconsin. Right now, he said companies are trying to recruit from out of state.

“The UW System already provides a lot of qualified workforce, but we need to multiply that,” Paris said, adding that the industry also needs to create more entry-level positions for people with a high school or technical college degree.

Johnson said the industry has immense growth potential and will be critical to the future of the state’s economy.

“It’s going to continue to grow so long as we can continue to meet the needs of our companies here,” Johnson said. “We’re very fortunate in Wisconsin to have such a strong biohealth industry, not just on the economic side. Someday, one of these products coming out of Wisconsin may save your life.”