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Thursday, April 22, 2010 11:50 pm

Will Illinois ignite a biotech boom?

In early May, nearly 20,000 biotechnology industry leaders from around the globe will gather in Chicago to discuss the future of the life sciences sector. The issues addressed at this year’s BIO International Convention could have lasting effects on the Illinois economy.

The biotech industry is already a source of lucrative jobs and an engine of economic growth here in Illinois. Our state supplies the world with top tier research and many agricultural bio-industrial, and human health products and services.

Consider jobs. Right now, firms heavily engaged in biotechnology products and services employ about 80,000 residents directly. The average salary in the bio-pharma sector, which employs 40,000 positions, tops $92,000. And since 2002, the number of bioscience jobs has increased by about 2,500 a year.

Nationwide the numbers are as impressive. Life sciences companies are responsible for employing 686,000 Americans directly, and another 3.2 million indirectly.

But jobs are just part of the story. The industry is a valuable driver of economic growth. In 2008, Illinois’ life sciences firms involved in human health produced $20.15 billion in direct GDP, and another $23 billion in indirect output. On top of that, bioscience companies — and especially those based here in Illinois — contribute an enormous amount of tax revenue. Indeed, at more than $27,000 per employee, Illinois’ biotech sector ranks third in the nation when it comes to per capita federal taxes paid.

Bioscience could also be the key to controlling our state’s rising health care costs. Throughout history, innovative medical technologies have made health care more effective and affordable.

The medicines currently used to treat diabetes, for example, make costly complications far less likely — and consequently trim medical costs nationwide by an estimated $747 per patient, per year. Similarly, cutting edge diagnostic tools like the ones developed by Abbott Labs enable physicians to identify small medical ailments before they become costly and life-threatening.

This is all strong evidence that bioscience, particularly here in Illinois, will be indispensible to our economic recovery.

Illinois’ political leaders, though, must work hard to make sure the state remains attractive to biotech companies. In 2002, Illinois accounted for 5 percent of the nation’s biopharmaceutical employment. Because the biotech industry has been growing in other states, though, that number has dropped — Illinois now accounts for less than 4 percent of overall biotech employment.

Elected officials here in Illinois can ensure the continued success of this critical industry by supporting policies that incentivize investment in bioscience firms.

First, lawmakers must pass Senate Bill 1522. This bill provides help for small companies which create the most new high-paying jobs. It uses programs proved effective in other states, states which are now luring our best startups and entrepreneurs out of Illinois. This bill was passed unanimously by the Senate and enjoys cosponsorship by more than 25 percent of the House.

Second, lawmakers must extend the Technology Development Fund through new authorizations under the Technology Development Act. Several bills, each passed by the Senate, are now before the House. This bill requires that a portion of state investments in developing companies be made here in Illinois. It’s a bet on our own people, and it’s a good bet.

As our nation moves past this economic rough patch, biotech will be an essential source of the jobs and innovation needed to reinvigorate our economy and keep it humming. Lawmakers need to recognize the broader importance of biotech, and do what they can to make sure it continues to flourish here in Illinois.

David Miller is the president and CEO of the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization (iBIO), headquartered in Chicago.
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