Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Published Sunday, September 14, 2003

Business Forum: 'Fertile soil' for biological research

William Hoffman

We hear a lot these day's about "competitiveness." It's what we need to do, we're told. We need to compete.

My introduction to bare-knuckled competitiveness was provided courtesy of the late supercomputer genius Seymour Cray during an interview 20 years ago for a University of Minnesota alumni publication. Cray earned a master's degree in applied mathematics from the university in 1951.

I asked Cray about a then-proposed collaboration among manufacturers, academia and government laboratories to maintain U.S. leadership in supercomputer technology against an onslaught by a Japanese consortium.

"I have really strong feelings about that," Cray answered, raising his voice. "I'm appalled at our trying to make a country-wide coordinated effort. I just can't imagine it ever being successful.

"I believe you want a lot of independent people thinking their own thoughts and trying their own things," he said. "We've got competition within the company. I've got a group here five miles away who I know are trying to outdo me."

Cray's idea of "competitiveness" reflects the native spirit of one of the 20th century's great entrepreneurs. His machines were the computational backbone of high science and "a measure of national technological prowess and economic competitiveness," wrote John Markoff of the New York Times. No one was about to tell Seymour Cray how to compete.

But times have changed.

Today competitiveness is expressed not only by people and within and among firms but increasingly in the geographic space of urban regions. Certain regions around the world have developed talent for performing certain economic activities exceptionally well, for competing successfully in the global economic order.

No one knows exactly why, but the data show it. Perhaps it's something "in the soil."

Clusters of innovation

A couple years ago, I discussed regional innovation with one of the world's leading authorities on competitiveness, Harvard University's Michael Porter, at a "Clusters of Innovation" conference in Washington, D.C. In the presentations he gives around the world, Porter likes to showcase Minnesota's medical device industry as a model cluster.

A critical feature of a successful cluster - a regional set of interlinked companies and research centers in a particular field - is the flow of information among all of the participants. I knew that from reading Porter. When the Web made its debut, I had an idea.

Today that idea is the Minnesota Biomedical and Bioscience Network, or MBBNet. MBBNet is a kind of regional information extension service for life sciences, research and health care enterprises. It provides open, global access to more than 1,200 regional organizations. (The web site is:

My idea was to weave the exceptional expertise and assets of our university institutes, centers, programs and people together with the expertise and assets in the broader community that make it happen: the manufacturers, investors, entrepreneurs, and business and government services.

I asked Porter what he thought about putting a competitive cluster on a digital platform and making it an open public resource. He said he liked the idea and would share it with his colleagues in Massachusetts, which is a hotbed of innovation.

MBBNet is being looked at by scholars and students of regional innovation in the United States and Europe, in part because it highlights the key role of the research base.

Because of the high density of linkages on MBBNet, the Google search engine has made it a priority site, giving Minnesota a competitive edge in the "making global connections" competition.

A global reach

One advantage of Web portals in advanced regional economies, besides cultivating a culture of sharing, is their usefulness in fostering relationships with other regions around the world. Such relationships are becoming more important as indigenous talent and technology are sought in cooperative long-distance learning partnerships.

These partnerships involve not only businesses but also universities, which provide critical knowledge infrastructure. In recent years, Minnesota has participated in such partnerships and exchanges with a number of countries including Norway, Sweden, Finland, England, Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, Canada and others. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty will visit Montreal this month to help build a relationship with Quebec, Canada's leading biotechnology province.

Three years ago Minnesota formed a partnership with the Greater Zurich region of Switzerland through the MBBNet - Zurich MedNet Web portal link. The link provides open access to organizations in the life sciences including medical technology, research and health care in both regions.

In addition to fostering business, investor and faculty interactions, the partnership has enabled student exchanges. An example is the University's "Global Seminar" program in which 30 undergraduate engineering students are hosted for three weeks by faculty and students at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Winterthur.

The MBBNet-Zurich MedNet link was endorsed by the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices in July 2002 in "A Governor's Guide to Trade and Global Competitiveness." The guide urges states to use virtual tools to promote international research and development and educational partnerships involving their universities, community colleges and key clusters.

This Wednesday, a Switzerland-Minnesota "biomedical partnering seminar" will be held on the University of Minnesota campus, expanding the relationship with greater Zurich to include bioscience clusters in Berne, Lausanne, Geneva and other regions.

The business of biology

Things that are "in the soil" can't be ignored. That's as true in regional innovation as it is in food production.

In an earlier Business Forum, attorney Mark Duval made the point that we need to take into account our existing strengths in medical technology, materials science, biosensing, plant and food bioprocessing and other areas as we build our biosciences future.

Duval noted opportunities in "combination products" that combine devices with drugs or biologics such as an antibiotic or a therapeutic protein.

That's also the view of Stephen Oesterle, Medtronic's senior vice president of medicine and technology. As an academic scientist and entrepreneur in Boston and at Stanford University, he predicts the convergence of molecular biology, device and information technologies and miniaturization.

Oesterle champions research and innovation networks. He has close interactions with the U of M, the Mayo Clinic, and our leading trade associations and has endorsed the MBBNet gateway.

We are moving into what University President Robert Bruininks calls the "global knowledge-based economy." Minnesota's "soil" for generating ideas and innovation has always proved fertile. My hunch is that it will prove fertile again for the emerging biosciences.


The author:

William Hoffman is executive director and founder of the Minnesota Biomedical and Bioscience Network (, an Internet gateway to the state's life sciences and health care companies and research institutions. He is affiliated with the University of Minnesota's Biomedical Engineering Institute. His e-mail address is