The Astellas Way Blog

How Illinois Is Cultivating Healthcare Innovators of the Future

By Jim Robinson, President, Astellas Americas

Aug 30, 2017

When I began my career in the biopharmaceutical sector, large companies rarely joined with next-generation innovators and start-up organizations to develop new treatments. In fact, if you didn’t work for a big-name company or run a research lab in a major academic setting, the options to significantly contribute to biosciences innovation were few and far between.

A Chicago-based organization called MATTER is indicative of the new collaboration model that we’re seeing across the life sciences today. Launched in 2015, MATTER is a healthcare incubator that works to accelerate the development of smaller biotech, health IT, and medical device companies. Through the support of both public- and private-sector organizations, the start-up procured over $8 million to open its doors and begin helping entrepreneurs.

I have the privilege of serving on MATTER’s Board of Directors and play a direct role in guiding an organization that, in many ways, will produce the types of companies that may one day be responsible for curing deadly diseases. Just this week, we welcomed MATTER’s leadership to our Northbrook, Illinois campus to share the organization’s exciting work with our employees.

Though only in its third year, the healthcare incubator is home to 200 start-up companies.

One member of the MATTER community who shared their story with us this week is CareTree, a start-up that has created a user-friendly, centralized online resource for patients, caregivers and health professionals to manage care across a patient’s healthcare team. A new MATTER member, Next Health Choice, helps physicians determine whether their services will be covered by a patient’s insurance before providing treatment. The services are intended to help alleviate both the financial and mental stress associated with major healthcare decisions.

These companies and more clearly demonstrate the ways in which innovative concepts are changing our healthcare system.

As my colleague Jeff Winton reminded us in his recent post, HIV/AIDS led to untimely deaths in the 1980s and early 1990s. Although we still don’t have a cure or vaccine, the trajectory of the disease has changed significantly thanks to endless persistence and collaboration. The same goes for a number of rare conditions that didn’t have treatments just a few years ago, but do today (e.g. cystic fibrosis and serious fungal infections). We’re living in a decade of ‘firsts’ that will help set the tone well into the future.

For organizations like Astellas and MATTER, the Midwest is a natural home base as we work to realize every possibility that this new era provides. Astellas proudly opened its U.S. (and now Americas) headquarters outside of Chicago in 2005. Home to over 3,500 biotechnology companies, Illinois has emerged as an epicenter of biomedical innovation and entrepreneurial collaboration. Just drive the I-294 corridor and you’ll be amazed by the collection of innovative life sciences companies. As a native of the Chicago area, I take great pride in this growth.

According to a study commissioned by Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization (iBIO), in Illinois alone, venture capital funding increased 209 percent between 2009 and 2012. Our industry is responsible for approximately 81,000 Illinois jobs and has contributed $98.6 billion to the state’s economy. Today, more than 4,100 clinical trials of potential new treatments for patients are active in the state, according to the National Institutes of Health. Chicago and its suburbs rank among the top 10 locations for biomedical patents, NIH funding, and biomedical jobs.

The numbers speak loudly.

But we can’t take this continued progress for granted. At all levels of government, it’s critical that we embrace policies and regulations that support and advance medical innovation, while also eliminating access barriers for patients. The need to ensure that patients can access newly developed medicines is vital – both for the patients directly and to help spur future innovation. An overly burdensome regulatory environment that hinders patient access will prevent a small company working with MATTER from becoming the next Astellas. Constructive, forward-looking public- and private-sector leadership will help these companies take off and thrive.

Without question, Illinois is playing a key role in this new era of medical invention. Economists and leaders across the biosciences point to new discoveries as the modern-day equivalent of the high-tech revolution of the past 30 years. Just as the personal computer inspired a transition to the digital age, breakthrough treatments for diseases like cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s could save millions of lives and improve millions more. And these innovations could happen right here in our state.

This biomedical ecosystem is at its best when we invent, discover, and collaborate. From start-up organizations to multi-national companies to public-sector agencies, everyone has a role to play. Let’s work together to ensure that this decade of ‘firsts’ leads to many more.