Over the past five years, the life sciences industry in Illinois has been growing faster than the national average. According to John Conrad, President and CEO of Illinois Biotechnology Innovation Organization (iBIO), two measures of this growth, establishments and employment numbers, are the primary reasons. “Employment numbers in our industry grew at 9 percent over the past two years compared to two percent, which was the national average,” said Conrad in a recent interview. Establishments, which represents not the number of companies but a mean number of physical locations, have drastically increased by roughly 22.5 percent over that same time period compared to the national average of 13.7 percent.
“Mind you these are not all life sciences companies, but they are high tech companies,” said Conrad. “Over the past five years, over 900 companies have spun out of our university system here in Illinois and that's about a 135 percent increase from the previous five years.”
The startup ecosystem within the state of Illinois is also strong and outpaces the national average for female founders. “Twenty-eight percent of those 900 companies have female founders compared to only 15 percent nationally,” said Conrad.
Conrad has every reason to feel proud.
iBIO in its current state was formed in 2001 from a merger of two preceding organizations. One of them was Chicago-based Chicago Biotech Network and the other was called iBIO, which at the time was more focused on governmental affairs, looking more downstate at the larger organizations. Those two organizations merged in 2001 to form the current organization of iBIO. Conrad has been with the organization since 2003, when he first became involved as an undergraduate.
“I joined right after they merged the two organizations and they were looking for somebody to run the business arm,” said Conrad. “I came in at that time as the second employee.”
Currently, iBIO represents the life science community in Illinois, translated as 85,000 life science jobs and 150 member companies. Conrad has an MBA in strategy. “My strength really relies on knowing our community and the issues impacting the community,” said Conrad. “It's less about knowing the science and more about knowing how to grow the community and connections.”
Three Key Areas of Focus That Benefit The Illinois Life Science Community
iBIO helps their members with assistance in three areas of focus: government and public affairs, community development, and charitable programs. Community development is focused on connecting members as a community and helping them to form the relationships they need to grow their businesses and programs. Government and public affairs tend to focus on mostly economic development issues, such as growing life science talent in Illinois.
“We work with our state and local governments on issues concerned with expanding access to capital for startup companies and improving the infrastructure in Illinois,” said Conrad. “That means better and more access to wet and dry lab space and ensuring a pipeline of talent. Company workforce development continues to be a big issue for Illinois,” said Conrad. “We try to ensure that our companies have the best trained employees that they can get. We have a lot of STEM graduates, but we need to make sure that those graduates are actually fitting the needs that our companies have.”
iBIO’s charitable programs include after-school programs and summer camps for girls grades three through eight which are funded by iBIO members. As well, iBIO works with local universities to cultivate new talent, and to ensure that the STEM talent that's coming out of the universities fits with the corporate culture. iBIO Institute is essentially the charitable programs arm of iBIO. “Our Stellar Girls and STEM Girls program are high-engagement, high-energy programs. Stellar Girls is an after-school program and STEM Girls camp is a five-day day camp in the summer located Waukegan. These programs really focus on underserved communities in Illinois,” said Conrad.
“Last year, universities had over twenty-five thousand STEM degrees in the undergrad to graduate level,” said Conrad. “Our efforts are mostly focused on connecting our membership to those degree programs to ensure that that they line up with the needs of industry. It's one thing to train a scientist to be a really excellent scientist, but it's another thing to train a scientist to work within a company. They're two kinds of different things.
“We work with academia to ensure the curriculum is appropriate given the state of industry,” said Conrad. “That’s an initiative that we are starting in 2019. For the most part, we focus on access to capital and infrastructure. And trying to work with partners on programs like apprenticeships which is a popular program especially for the biomanufacturing part of the industry.”
CPhI North America’s Synergy with iBIO
There are a lot of synergies between iBIO and the CPhI North America event in terms of the dynamism of Illinois being a hub for talent in the biopharma and biomanufacturing fields. Conrad is personally dedicated to ensuring that the event in Illinois highlights the local community and that iBIO members, especially large members, are engaged in and on the program.
Boasting the second highest concentration of biopharma companies in the U.S. outside of the Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey triangle, Illinois and specifically, Chicago, make for ideal locations for the CPhI North America event.
“We have a very large and established industry with over forty-five thousand direct employees here in Illinois,” said Conrad. The central geography is also ideal as Chicago can draw attendees from both coasts, with two airports supporting the transportation infrastructure.
“Add to that the existing large industry and world-class research organizations here in Chicago, and it’s a perfect location for a conference like CPhI North America,” said Conrad.
iBIO will be helping their member companies facilitate connections at the event. “Leading into the conference, we want to make sure that our community knows about this conference and that they're attending the event and networking opportunities,” said Conrad. “Our role is to act as a conduit of that information for them, and for visiting companies, as well.”
Chicago Welcomes CPhI Attendees
CPhI life science industry attendees might be interested to visit the newly-launched health incubator MATTER located in the Merchandise Mart Plaza. “That's something really cool that's happening in our community,” said Conrad. “There are daily programs there, and it presents a great opportunity for somebody coming into town to get connected to our state.”
Aside from that, obviously Chicago has a rich food culture and many great restaurants, and a world-class nightlife to add to the networking opportunities. As well, by April 30th it will be baseball season in Chicago. Conrad encourages visitors coming into Chicago to attend a game of one or both of the major league baseball teams.
“Chicago is very welcoming,” said Conrad. “People should attend the conference and expect to have opportunities to meet with a lot of great companies and people in the community.”