IVCA Q&A: David E. Miller, President & CEO of the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization, or ‘iBIO’

IVCA Q&A: David E. Miller, President & CEO of the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization, or ‘iBIO’

October 9, 2013

The clever and modern acronym “iBIO” stands for Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization. Founded in the year 2000. the organization is a non-profit trade association that champions the life sciences in Illinois and the surrounding Midwest region. iBIO works to develop or expand companies in that field, and works with leaders from business, academia and politics. In 2003, the organization established the iBIO Institute, which includes their EDUCATE and PROPEL® Centers. EDUCATE delivers industry-led science and math programs for teachers and students, and PROPEL helps in creating the success rates for life science early stage and start-ups. On October 7th, the iBIO Institute presented their 7th Annual iBIO iCON Awards.

The CEO & President of iBIO and the iBIO Institute is David E. Miller. As a businessman, consultant and attorney, he has a wealth of experience on the tech start-up side and in civic and Fortune 500 projects. His resume includes VP level jobs at AppsPoint Corporation in Silicon Valley and Clear Communications in Chicago, plus he was President of Joiner Associates in Madison, Wisconsin. It was there that Miller served as a business aide to the Mayor of Madison, helping to establish the University of Wisconsin Research Park. He has worked as Regional Counselor for the Hartford Insurance Group, and as a Real Estate Attorney for the Richman Brothers division of the Woolworth Corporation.

In a big week for the iBio Institute, David Miller spoke to the IVCA on the ever evolving organization and life sciences/biotechnology business.

IVCA: You had the 7th Annual iBIO iCON Awards this week. How do those awards exemplify what you do at the iBIO Institute, and how do the honorees reflect the evolution of the biotechnology industry?

David Miller: The iBIO Institute’s mission is to orchestrate business leadership in delivery of world-class educational programs and job-creating new technology ventures. We do this in a couple ways. The iCON awards are a celebration of folks and organizations without whom none of this would be possible: The phenomenal teachers who get kids, other teachers and administrators excited about science and math. The innovative researchers who push out the boundaries of knowledge. And the civic leaders who help shape a supportive infrastructure – or, to use the current buzzword, ecosystem.

IVCA: Your main awards honors educators, innovators and civic leaders in the field. How does each of those categories of honorees contribute to making the industry more viable?

Miller: The teachers are critical because among developed nations the United States ranks roughly 25th in math and science. The National Academy of Sciences – after exhaustive studies – has identified teacher development as one of the ‘primary leverage points’ for getting the U.S. out of this crisis.

The other primary leverage point identified by the Academy is investment in basic research. Without ongoing discovery and commercialization, we can’t move forward in the three biotech sectors – agriculture, medical products and bio-industrial applications. So we honor the rock star scientists.

The Civic iCONS – this year Baxter, represented by its CEO Bob Parkinson and last year President Emeritus of Northwestern Henry Bienen  – are creating a supportive framework for innovation to flourish.

IVCA: What were the goals of the iBIO Institute when it was established in 2003, and how have those goals evolved over the last 10 years? 

Miller: Frankly, when I founded the Institute back then, my thinking was pretty crude. I figured a big part of what iBIO was trying to do was educational – making Chicago, Illinois and the surrounding Midwest region one of the top biotech centers on earth. I also knew that funding sources like foundations and many government organizations would not supply dollars to a trade organization like iBIO. So I created a 501-C-3 public charity to capture some of that funding – it was a pretty vague strategy.

In talking with our companies, though, and after learning about the warnings from the National Academy, I realized how deep the crisis in education really was. So we hired Ann Reed – now the VP of the EDUCATE Center –  to develop educational programs that would improve teachers’ skill levels and get kids excited about math and science. We received excellent help from Governor Quinn and one of his chief advisors, Jack Lavin, as well as support from our corporate members. Ann and I decided early on that we only wanted to create programs of impact that were capable of being scaled up and replicated. We weren’t going to just chase puddles of money.

On the entrepreneurship side, again the direction of the iBIO board was decisive. Board members directed us to find ways of connecting the dots for entrepreneurs, identifying resources in the community that startups could rely on. We found the community willing to pitch in and created PROPEL® – a panoply of services for entrepreneurs – managed since 2008 by our SVP, Barbara Goodman. She has done a magnificent job of helping companies develop their stories to the point where managers and Angel as well as institutional investors can attach. Here again, Governor Quinn, as well as Chicago Mayors Daley and Emanuel. have provided important help at key junctures. And we’ve partnered heavily with the universities, which have really stepped up their games.

IVCA: The iBIO Institute's EDUCATE Center develops science and math programs for teachers and students. How has the technological revolution changed the way math and science is taught at both the basic and elite levels of schooling?

Miller: Certainly technology has been a help, but the application of technology is constrained by the fiscal condition of the state or local units of government. Your question touches a nerve, because we’ve had teachers tell us that in many cases they lack textbooks or even level surfaces on which to perform experiments. It’s hard not to get angry when those stories are juxtaposed to reports on educational investments in other countries, where teachers are viewed as heroes and given the support they need to turn their students into innovators.

IVCA: The Institute's PROPEL Center interacts with the number and success rates of early-stage and life science start-ups in Illinois. What is the status of that entrepreneurial category at the present time, and in what fields within the discipline do you foresee the most potential?

Miller: As to the first part of the question, I remember being in Silicon Valley one afternoon and asking a VC friend of mine, ‘How was your day?’ He replied that he’d likely know in 3-5 years. Measuring progress is kind of like that, but we view investment from all sources raised by our client companies as an important marker. We expect PROPEL clients to pass the $100 million mark this year, and that’s pretty phenomenal, when you consider that these are very, very early and formation stage companies we’re talking about.

In terms of fields of activity, we’re seeing a lot of medical devices and diagnostics. Drugs are tough these days – because of the huge outlays of time and dollars involved – but even there, we’re seeing activity, particularly in nanotech-related offerings.

On the Ag and bio-industrial fronts, you can expect to see iBIO helping lead development of those sectors in collaboration with our companies, the City and State governments and food/Ag researchers. John Conrad, our VP of Operations, will drive this effort.

IVCA: iBIO, and the iBIO Institute, desires a better public understanding of biotechnology. What do you think the average world citizen needs to know about biotech, especially in how it will affect their day-to-day lives?

Miller: At iBIO and the Institute we think of what we need as a triangle. At the tip of the triangle there is what we affectionately call ‘nerds.’ Supporting the research geniuses, we need folks who know how to translate what they discover into products and services. And supporting those two groups, we need a science literate population, that will encourage policy makers and regulators to create the right environment. I’d say in Illinois – and America generally – we’re doing much better in generating the two groups at the top of the triangle, though there is always vast room for improvement.

What’s scary is the science literacy of the general population. It’s why I’ve become much more energetic about combatting the anti-GMO sentiments lately. The anti-science activists are perpetuating a ludicrous argument that threatens – literally threatens – the lives and well-being of millions of people worldwide. And if they can succeed where food’s concerned, it sets a lousy tone for the medical and industrial sectors.

IVCA: You've personally worked on the tech business and the government economic development sides of tech commercialization. What are the main differences in those two operations, and what goals are specific to how they succeed?

Miller: Having served in government, I’m sympathetic to the constraints legislators and other elected officials face. They have a deluge of information coming at them, and all the while they’ve got to not only do their government jobs, but also be in constant fund-raising mode to be re-elected.

As business people, we can be much more action oriented – turning on a dime when we need to – at least in smaller organizations. We tend to get impatient with the lawmakers. We need to realize that people don’t pop out the womb knowing how to facilitate innovation. And we need to understand that it’s our job to provide ongoing education. I’m preaching to the reader and to myself here, because I know it’s not easy. Whereas it is easy, very easy, to get frustrated with the political and legislative process.

IVCA: Finally, what would you like to tell the IVCA specifically regarding the mission of iBIO and the iBIO Institute?

Miller: For years after I took over leadership of these organizations, we worked exclusively on specific biotech issues. A few years ago, though, we came out in support of state pension and fiscal reform, because we realized that unless this ‘macro’ issue was dealt with, our mission had no hope of accomplishment. We and the primary leadership organizations like the Civic Committee under Ty Fahner need all the help we can get on this, because reform is going to be tough. So I hope the IVCA and their members will weigh in when the time comes for votes to be taken – and I hope that’s soon.

To learn more about iBIO and the iBIO Institute, click here.