Say the word "biotechnology" in casual conversation and most often people think "genetically modified," "clones" or "stem cells” and the ethical controversies that are attached to those terms.
To politicians and promoters of economic development, the terms "biotech" or "life sciences" project visions of high-tech jobs that pay higher wages than most other industries.
As many manufacturing jobs move off shore to other countries with cheaper labor forces, states are seeking to grow new industries.
So-called knowledge industries are alluring. An important sector is the field of life sciences. It’s a rapidly developing field in which Iowa historically has enjoyed at least a toe hold.
In the mid 1990's, from Boston ... to Minnesota ... to yes, even Iowa ... biotech got off to a shaky start.
Today millions of acres are planted to genetically modified seeds.
But, Iowa is home to not just biotech crops. It has companies producing bio-based pharmaceuticals, cellular medical devices and dietary supplements.
Paul Faganel, President, Embria Health Sciences, Ankeny: "Through a proprietary nutrient solution, we do anaerobic fermentation to the yeast."
The end result is an ingredient the company calls Epicor, which is shipped in bulk to other companies that include Epicor in the making of supplements.
David Faber, President, Trans Ova: "We actually begin by harvesting what we will call a cell line from the animal we wish to clone."
Eventually, an embryo is produced. Following the nine-month bovine gestation, a genetically identical calf, a clone is born. Trans Ova also does transgenic cloning where animal traits are genetically modified to produce pharmaceutical properties contained in the milk itself.
While the communities that are home to these businesses may not fully understand the complexities of the science, they do appreciate the new jobs they bring. In Ankeny, for example, the recruitment of 4 biotech companies has created 300 jobs over the last 5 years.
Curtis Brown, Assistant Director of Economic Development, Ankeny: "And these jobs play right into Iowa's strengths. They add value to agriculture. They're part of the knowledge base economy that's creating creativity and innovation that will pay dividends to this community and to the entire state for many, many years."
That may be, but the recruited businesses did not come without a price.
Curtis Brown, Assistant Director of Economic Development, Ankeny: "In Ankeny, we used incentives that are directly tied to increases in property tax valuations. So while we do offer some financial incentives in the early years, those incentives are always temporary. But the investments that the companies make in this community and in our state are permanent and long lasting."
Brown likes to point to the success of the first biotech firm the city recruited, Monsanto in 1998. The company last year announced a $6 million expansion.
Such stories fuel speeches from the "pulpit" of state government – for continued state incentives to establish biotech and other industries in Iowa.
Governor Tom Vilsack, 2003 Condition of the State Address: "Over the next five years we should commit $500 million to this fund. It is that important."
Employment in Iowa’s bio-tech sector has grown. Iowa Workforce Development reports in 2000, there were nearly 69,000 jobs. By 2005, there were more than 72,500. As of September, there were 1,044 bioscience companies in the state.
But some say that growth in the biosciences may have been slowed when then-governor Vilsack signed legislation to prohibit stem cell research.
Dr. Mark Anderson, University of Iowa Hospitals, January 2007: "There are lots of downstream effects of having a stem cell ban. But the very best scientists doing stem cell research won't come here if we have this ban. They'll go to other states where they'll be received in a more friendly fashion."
Chet Culver, 2007 Budget Address "Today, I am asking you to lift the ban on stem cell research."
The ban was rescinded last year, soon after the governor Chet Culver took office. While the measure allowed stem cell research, it prohibited human reproductive cloning.
But cloning in animals is occurring in Iowa. Trans Ova Genetics of Sioux Center, among other things, clones cattle for farmers raising elite breeding stock ... at a cost upwards of $17,500 for the first calf.
David Faber, President, Trans Ova Genetics "We're talking about a few hundred animals out of a national herd of a hundred million, so to speak, that may qualify for this kind of, of a technique or technology. So, we're really talking about what we like to call the rock stars of the barnyard so to speak."
In recent years, Trans Ova and Ankeny-based Embria Health Sciences, have received financial incentives from the state of Iowa: Over $9 million to Trans Ova and $140,000 to Embria. In exchange, the businesses are expected to "grow" jobs.
Paul Faganel, President, Embria Health Sciences: "I believe ours was around 20 or 25 somewhere in there. Q: by what deadline? It was a 3 to 5 year period. We're into our second year of that."
Faganel says Embria expects to produce 10,000 kilos of its brand name ingredient Epicore this year. That's double last year's production. And if Embria and the other bioscience firms continue to grow ….Ankeny … as well as the rest of the state, hopes to prosper along with them.