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Lighting Up Life Sciences in Illinois


In January, Illinois Biotechnology Innovation Organization (iBIO) announced the appointment of Marilyn Vetter as its new chair. Vetter is group vice president, US access strategy at Horizon Therapeutics. During 30 years in the pharma industry, she has held leadership roles in government affairs, managed markets and sales. Prior to joining Horizon, she spent 15 years at Takeda, where she led the company’s government and public affairs efforts for Illinois and nine other states in the Midwest. Before that, she spent seven years at Organon Inc. in positions of increasing responsibility in managed markets and sales.

As Vetter began her two-year tenure as iBIO’s chair, she sat down with Pharm Exec to outline the work she wants to do to expand Illinois’ existing life sciences ecosystem by strengthening relationships with policymakers and advancing efforts to attract skilled and diverse talent and to support the next generation of innovators.

Pharm Exec: What drew you to the iBIO role and what are your priorities?

Marilyn Vetter

Marilyn Vetter

Marilyn Vetter: Part of it was just the excitement around telling the Illinois story; having a broader audience and being able to enunciate the successes that are here. At iBIO, we will be making sure that policymakers at all levels, state and federal, understand the impact that they have on our industry, both positive and negative, and helping them understand how it especially impacts in-state companies. We are all touched by healthcare, but it can be hard for policymakers to understand how nuanced policies can impact economically the companies that are within their borders. So, I’m excited about that opportunity.

Another opportunity I’m keen to explore is elevating and amplifying what we are doing with kids and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in our communities. This is really critical, especially post-COVID. As a kid, when you thought about science class, did you like the book part or the lab part? Kids haven’t had the opportunity to participate in the lab part of late. iBIO is doing a lot of fantastic work with children on STEM, which is important to me and to the entire team.

Then there is our work in creating a cohesive community and making sure that companies understand that their place in that community is not just tied up with the science and innovations they bring. People don’t think of life science companies in the way they think of General Mills when they see a box of cereal. A lot of life science company names are obscure to them; they don’t think of them as part of their community. Perhaps, as an industry, we haven’t done a good enough job of embedding ourselves in the community. But we have made great strides with that at Horizon, so I want to work with the team at iBIO to help other companies do the same.

How do you aim to promote diversity in the life sciences industry with your STEM and other activities?

We have the Stellar Girls program, for example, which introduces girls to “Big Ideas” in STEM fields. Students explore how STEM are used to feed, fuel and heal the world.They have the opportunity to interact with STEM professionals to learn about careers and apply STEM skills to real-world problems. These are normally very hands-on, after-school activities, but obviously they have been hard to do when everything had to go virtual. So, while we hope that a lot of those in-person experiences can return, one of the things we have done is expand our STEM Kits program. iBIO will give every fifth-grade student at Des Plaines Community Consolidated School District 62’s nine elementary schools activity kits to encourage at-home learning experiences in STEM. Most of these are targeted to under-served schools and under-served communities that don’t have a lot of these strong science programs. It gives the kids that connection to science in a very kinetic and tactile way, which is what they need.

What are the biotech opportunities in Illinois that people don’t necessarily know about?

People don’t know, for example, that there are 88,000 direct jobs in the state that are dedicated to the life sciences, or that in the last three years, Chicago has seen a significant increase in venture capital investment in bioscience. It’s one of the top, if not the top growth city in the United States in the last three years. We’ve added a million square feet of lab space, which was our most desperate need, and more is being developed—which is attracting startups. If you go to Boston, they have their cluster of companies And you go to San Francisco or Raleigh, it’s all in in a very cohesive geographic space. When you come to the Midwest, however, you’ve got lots of space; the community has grown up in a more diverse geographic mix. I don’t think people see the connectivity that is here. We have a really robust life sciences community, but we’ve just been, I hate to say it, a bit of a flyover state.

What have you been doing to get that message out?

First, partnering with the real-estate community that specializes in this space has been extremely important, and we’ve had some very good partners that have wanted to really spread that message. We’re seeing specialized real-estate capitalists come in and invest in the Chicago area. Portal Innovations opened 35,000 square feet of premier wet and dry lab and office space at Fulton Labs, for example. We need to make sure that people are aware of this growing momentum.

One of the things that’s fairly new for us is that we’ve created an Illinois Life Sciences Caucus in the state legislative body. Having legislators experience and then spread that message, particularly if they go into higher office, will help us a lot. The governor’s office understands the importance of the life sciences, which has a $98 billion economic impact in Illinois. That’s an important part of the bottom line.

What are you doing to draw talent to the universities in the region?

We have fantastic universities here. What we want to do is expand their wet lab space in order to take would-be innovators to that next stage. If researchers come up with a great innovation, they can’t afford to go out and build their own wet lab space, so they partner with an institution where they can access that. We didn’t have enough wet lab space for students to go to that next level. I think one of the most important things that will come out of that expanded wet lab space is the transformation of innovations that are seen in universities; they can stay in Illinois instead of being spread to the coasts because they had nowhere else to go further their research.

What is it you’re hoping to bring to the iBIO role from your own experience in the industry?

Part of it is technical expertise, having spent all of my career in market access and in government affairs. It helps when looking at things like improving the R&D tax credit in Illinois. This is a great tax credit, but it’s really only for companies that already have revenue. And we know that if you’re in early-stage innovation, there is no revenue until you’ve got a commercialized asset. Is there a way we can make some improvements to that policy? I think my background in policy will certainly be a help in negotiating these areas. I also spent 30 years building, leading, and mentoring teams inside some amazing companies. Being able to evangelize a bit from an industry perspective is something that I’m excited about. I feel there is an important part of this industry that needs to be competitive; that’s what keeps that innovation coming. It keeps venture capital coming. But there is foundational work that can be done that really needs to be collaborative. It’s about community building; that is what we really want to focus on for the next couple of years.

A two-year tenure is quite a short amount of time. What, realistically, would you liked to have achieved at the end of your time as iBIO chair?

We need to have more lab space; we need to have more venture capital; we need to have a stronger startup community. What I hope is that, at the end of those two years, the momentum continues to sustain itself and keeps growing. Probably most importantly is that we’re on the map for more people than just the Midwest. I want all the other epicenters of life sciences to know that we’re there, too. When I think about losing a Takeda to Boston, that was a tough thing on the community but it was harder for the folks that wanted to stay in Illinois. Probably the godsend from that that is many people did choose to stay, spinning off their own startups. I hope that we continue to see that growth.

I’ve been helping iBIO as a volunteer for over 10 years and I have never been more excited about where we are. I feel like we’ve been fanning a flame for a really long time, and right now you can actually see it and feel it. The warmth of the flame is growing — I hope it’s a full-on bonfire in two years!

Illinois Biotechnology Innovation Organization

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