Wisconsin Biohealth Flexes its Muscle in Pandemic Battle


By Lisa Johnson

The clock is still ticking. The race against time in unraveling the mystery of a relentless enemy isn’t over. Biohealth professionals have been tireless in the fight against COVID-19. From testing advances, tracking patient care, therapeutic trials, vaccine development and manufacturing, the global response has brought about incredible progress. In our state, the innovation has gone beyond cutting-edge research—and right to the heart of the way the biohealth community works. Yes, Wisconsin has turned the biohealth industry on its head—in a good way. 

Now, more than ever before, the relationship between and among biohealth organizations goes beyond the idea of what traditional collaborations look like and what can happen when businesses collectively recognize the long-term significance of strength through partnerships.

If Wisconsin isn’t first to mind when thinking about biohealth powerhouses, it should be. And soon, it will be. In fact, it’s home to one of the most robust, comprehensive clusters of health solution leaders in the world. The Midwest has been known for its manufacturing, but for years it’s been growing beyond traditional manufacturing. Our biohealth credentials go far beyond manufacturing. There are so many stories to tell in every biohealth sector right here in Wisconsin. The fact is, top research, biotech, biopharma, medical device and diagnostic, and digital health organizations, together, make Wisconsin a true health industry hub. 

Epic has proven again how critical medical records are always, but especially during this timeframe; managers and nurses use their reports in Epic to determine the number of available beds in specific units at the hospital. The Epic dashboards allow leaders to make critical changes based on key data.

Our research institutions and companies have been among the most successful in the country at discovering and commercializing innovation in medical technology for decades. There’s a reason for that: imagination and true partnerships.

That’s where BioForward Wisconsin comes in. As the voice of the state’s deep and diverse biohealth industry with more than 220 member organizations, we have drawn a new blueprint for doing business—and doing good in the world. We have connected our industry member companies and institutions into one bright constellation of partners—not competitors. Our efforts and success have been strengthening since 1987, but our constellation has really shone during the COVID-19 crisis.

One example of the cooperation among our members has been a free sharing of what is normally strictly confidential information. During our state’s emergency Safer at Home Order, BioForward requested a statewide exemption to keep biohealth professionals at work when the world needed them the most. But bringing personnel on-site for work during the height of the pandemic obviously had its challenges. It required companies to develop, document, and execute extensive safety programs to protect workforce health. Larger companies have legal and human resource staffing to interpret governmental guidelines and implement these programs expeditiously. Smaller firms, though just as pivotal and productive in their work, lack those resources. So our larger members readily shared policy, protocol, and procedural materials with smaller member companies—for the common good of our industry and healthcare worldwide. Taking it a step further, BioForward created a resource guide to keep all members updated on the latest COVID-19 data and news—from patient and supply tracking, to studies and breakthroughs, to operational best practices and legislative matters.  

At first, our role in biohealth was one of reaction to the virus. During the urgent need early on for the design and manufacture of PPE, BioForward worked closely with groups across the state in supply chain facilitation, and liability and regulatory compliance. Now, we are moving into management and proactive phases. 

For example, the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and UW Health are part of a crucial national study among 40 institutions on convalescent plasma as a COVID-19 treatment. Madison-based GoDx, a diagnostics company, has proven that young, imaginative companies have the vision on where we need to realign in this pandemic receiving funding from the NIH to advance their rapid, on-site detection testing kit for COVID-19. 

Additionally, Milwaukee-based Versiti, Inc., already a national leader in blood health innovation, began collecting plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients to help treat others severely affected with the virus. 

In the race for a vaccine, one candidate is under development in Madison by Catalent, who has partnered with Spicona. Their virus-like protein-based vaccine will use Catalent’s proprietary cell line development platform. The University of Wisconsin, FluGen, and Bharat Biotech have joined forces to create another contender, CoroFlu. The collaboration between academic institutions and private industry, in particular, is a key force in driving Wisconsin’s dynamic biohealth engine. Universities bring the research component to support private industry advances. 

In yet another team effort, the Morgridge Institute for Research, a private biomedical research institute that partners with the University of Wisconsin—Madison, is also tackling COVID-19.

Several teams that do not typically study viruses quickly pivoted and leveraged their expertise to help address the current gap in knowledge about the novel coronavirus. They have made their data publicly accessible through an interactive web tool that can be used by others in the biomedical community to make their own analyses. Future results also will be shared with virologists and medical professionals with the hope that it can be used to develop research or diagnostic tools, and ultimately antiviral therapies

Our contributions to the fight are as far-reaching and significant as our biohealth network itself.  

As devastating as COVID-19 has been, it has also brought out the best in so many of us. Indeed, you don’t have to look far to find strength, resilience, creativity, and downright heroism lately. I believe there is even more good to come. Hopefully, this pandemic will inspire people to work in roles that enable them to actually change or save lives. Fortunately, careers in biohealth are not only rewarding, but offer challenges, brilliant peers, stability, opportunity for advancement, and high pay. At BioForward Wisconsin, and among our members, another silver lining we see is our readiness to apply the lessons we’ve learned to other health challenges. The synergistic partnerships and new level of collaboration we’ve achieved throughout all biohealth sectors statewide is a formidable force. We continue to bring this force to bear on the pandemic, and we will be even stronger going forward.    

Wisconsin was on the global health map long before the pandemic, but perhaps our constellation is more visible now. People are looking at the Midwest in a new way, because in our state, we’re looking at biohealth in a new way. Advanced research and discovery happen when you come together to focus the brightest minds and expansive resources on common goals. That’s how Wisconsin has become the birthplace of so many ground-breaking health solutions. And there’s more to come. Keep an eye on the newest biohealth hub; the heartland is having an impact on the health of the world. 

In Wisconsin, we’ve shown that collaboration is the way to innovation. And innovation will eclipse this crisis—and others.

Lisa Johnson is CEO, of BioForward Wisconsin.