Biotech leaders discuss industry; protesters rally at Yudof’s office

by Peter Johnson

State biotechnology industry leaders gathered at the Radisson Hotel Metrodome on Thursday to discuss the roles of research and venture capital in the growing state industry, while about 40 protesters chanted, “To heck with biotech” outside.
Conference speakers, including experts from Wisconsin and North Carolina — states where biotech business is booming — briefed local industry leaders on their strategies.
“(The biotech industry) is important for the economic development of Minnesota,” said Charles Muscoplat, dean of the agriculture school.
MNBIO, a state biotechnology industry trade group, sponsored the event featuring presentations by College of Biological Science Dean Robert Elde and private industry leaders including BioErgonomics CEO Cathy Park and Dr. Todd Nelson, director of research and strategy for Dain Rauscher.
Patrick Kelly, director of state government relations for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, spoke about strategies for “addressing anticipated threats” to the biotechnology industry, including handling protesters on the anniversary of the World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle.
Protesters often cite seed giant Cargill’s $10 million donation to the University in 1999 to fund plant genomics research as evidence of the increasingly intimate relationship between the University and private industry.
Protesters decry corporatization
A crowd of about 40 protesters marched back and forth along Washington Avenue outside the conference as a State Patrol helicopter circled overhead and over a dozen mounted police stood by a few blocks away.
Around 2 p.m., the activists marched down Washington Avenue to Morrill Hall.
Chanting and drumming, they occupied the second floor of the building for about 45 minutes, demanding a meeting with University President Mark Yudof.
Officials in the administration building granted a meeting between five representatives of the group and University officials but told them that Yudof would be unable to attend.
Brett Stephan, a senior in the College of Liberal Arts, was one of the five who sat down with Muscoplat; vice president of the Academic Health Center, Frank Cerra; Mark Paller, professor of health science special programs; an MNBIO board member; and Christine Maziar, vice president of the graduate school.
“We’re protesting because MNBIO functions as an organization the helps along destructive corporations and, because this is a public university, that shouldn’t be in its interests,” Stephan said.
Later in the day, the activists, faculty members and two state representatives gathered in Smith Hall to discuss sustainable agriculture and biotech legislation.
This counter-conference was sponsored by the Minnesota Genetic Engineering Activist Network and was attended by DFL Representatives Phyllis Kahn and Dale Swapinski.
After her speech, Kahn, who earned a doctorate in molecular biology from Yale, said that while she supports many of the advances in biotechnology, the issue needs to be looked at carefully.
“The University needs to be very careful to try and retain its neutrality,” Kahn said. “These discussions are exactly the kind of thing we should be doing.”