This article is part of a new series profiling University of Wisconsin alumni contributing to Wisconsin’s growing innovation economy.

Lisa Johnson (Finance, ’83) is CEO of BioForward Wisconsin, a non-profit dedicated to supporting Wisconsin’s biohealth industry.

BioForward Wisconsin CEO Lisa Johnson

Wisconsin Inno: Lisa, thank you for connecting with Wisconsin Inno. Can you tell us about BioForward? How is BioForward supporting innovation in Wisconsin?

Lisa Johnson: BioForward is a member-driven organization representing Wisconsin’s biohealth industry. We’re an independent voice that provides services and resources to support the growth of our industry throughout the U.S. and the world. We advocate on both a state and federal level and provide other support such as technical assistance, networking opportunities, educational offerings, and member events. Finally, we market Wisconsin’s biohealth industry and the innovation that is taking place here and the opportunities to engage in that innovation.

Innovation thrives when it turns into products and companies. BioForward strives to bring together Wisconsin’s research institutions and companies to form partnerships that will lead to this type of innovation.

Inno: Can you give us an example of some recent activity at BioForward? What key relationships do you have with others in Wisconsin’s innovation economy?

Johnson: We held our Biohealth Summit last October. We are currently leading a talent attraction and retention initiative with our major biohealth companies. BioForward is providing marketing and organizational support to this initiative as we try to attract global talent to Wisconsin’s rapidly expanding biohealth industry.

We partner with those organizations that act to improve Wisconsin’s economy and directly benefit Wisconsin’s biohealth industry. BioForward works very closely with our research institutions, such as UW-Madison and the Medical College of Wisconsin. Our most important relationships are the companies in the industry sector, such as GE Healthcare, Exact Sciences, Promega, and Illumina. So much of our innovation economy is coming directly from our private industries, and BioForward is aligning its programs and services to meet the needs of those companies.

Be part of the solution to change the image of Wisconsin. Stay here.

Inno: We hear a lot about the relative lack of general entrepreneurial and investment activity in Wisconsin. Do we have reason to be optimistic about the future? What barriers need to be addressed?

Johnson: We certainly have a lower level of entrepreneurial and investment activity due to the size of our state and our location, but it is not as dire as the yearly Kaufmann Entrepreneurial Index portrays. That is based on a certain set of criteria that if you just change that criteria would produce very different results.

Still, I think we create some of our own problems and expect the government to provide the solution. We need mentality shifts here from both entrepreneurs and investors. We need more risk takers on both of those fronts. We have many great things happening in Wisconsin due to our research institutions, the talent we produce here, our work ethic, and our lower cost of living and quality of life, but we do need to find ways to change the overall image of Wisconsin on a global scale. People want to define us only as a rust belt state. Young people do not want to live in a rust belt state. We need a state and a nation that welcomes immigrants. We are educating students from outside the U.S. and need to find ways to keep that talent, creativity, and entrepreneurial mindset here.

Inno: How does the biohealth industry compare with other industries in Wisconsin?

Johnson: Unlike many other industries, the biohealth industry has a large impact on the entire state. Wisconsin’s biohealth industry is a major economic power because of the industry’s international reputation, job growth, and high wages. However, Wisconsin is an aging state, and, unless we can grow industries like the biohealth industry, companies will move to states that appreciate the value this industry brings through jobs, wages, multiplier effect, and taxes back into the community.

Inno: What tips do you have for those looking to start biohealth-related companies in Wisconsin?

Johnson: You need a diversified and driven team that is passionate about their company and products/services. It is hard to start a company, but it is the most rewarding career you can have when you have a good team working together to build a company. It cannot be just tech individuals. You need to have business majors and liberal arts majors who are creative and excellent problem solvers. When you combine these groups, you then have a balanced team that can achieve results. Partnerships are crucial. Finally, you need to go after opportunities. People won’t come to you.

Inno: Much of the start-up activity in Wisconsin seems to hover around the Madison area. What effect does the University have?

Johnson: Certainly, there is influence from UW because of the talent, innovation, and technologies. However, there is a lot of startup activity coming from the private sector. In the 1980’s—1990’s, it was talent coming out of Promega starting companies like Novagen, Pan Vera, Epicentre, Lucigen, and Mirus. That talent then went onto other companies or started additional companies. Thus, Madison’s strength around the biosciences occurred and continues to have a major impact on Madison’s economy. Later it was EPIC, where you see the same cycle happening in health tech with companies such as HealthFinch, HealthMyne, Wellbe, and Propeller Health.  Now you are seeing major corporations purchasing companies and not only staying here but making major investments to expand.

Inno: Any final thoughts for the Wisconsin Inno audience?

Johnson: Be part of the solution to change the image of Wisconsin. Stay here. Be active in promoting WI as a place to invest in, grow companies, and build careers here. Have your voices heard that we need to be investing into our education systems and industries like biohealth that allows our state to attract younger talent and provide for future economic prosperity.

*Note: Responses were edited for length

About the Author: Andy is a 5th-year MD/PhD Candidate at the Medical College of Wisconsin with interests in medicine, biomedical research, the humanities, and innovation. He is also a member of the Golden Angels Advisors, MCW’s Postdoc Industry Consulting Organization, and a Community Engagement Fellow at Bascom Ventures]

Featured Image via BioForward’s Annual Report