America’s Midwestern Gem: How Chicago is Building the Next Biomedical Research Hub

By Matthew Johnson

Kapoor, Anish. Cloud Gate. 2006. Chicago. – photograph by Matthew Johnson, 2018

In his latest post, Matthew Johnson takes us to Chicago – America’s “Windy City.” Known as a printing and publishing heavyweight and a finance and insurance hub, Chicago’s emerging industries have always had to compete for recognition with the city’s more established ones; a burdensome challenge for a city whose history is so closely linked with the industries that birthed it. Despite this, Chicago’s biosciences sector is thriving. Matt’s recent visit shines a light on some of the institutions committed to commercializing research in the biosciences thus reinventing Chicago as a potential hub for biomedical discovery.

Without question, Chicago is one of America’s truly iconic cities – it’s contributions to American industry, finance, art and architecture, food, music, sports, and culture are essential to the character of the nation.

Indeed, the prominence of so many of Chicago’s assets means that others go relatively unrecognized. Such is the case with the region’s biomedical sector which, despite the number of global healthcare companies headquartered there, carries a healthy chip on its shoulder that comes with being perceived as “flyover country”. As with Detroit, I particularly enjoy building connections in places with something to prove.

I arrived at O’Hare Airport and took a taxi to Lake County, a tiny suburb to the north of metropolitan Chicago. Lake County is home to the global headquarters of Abbott Laboratories and its biopharmaceutical spin-off AbbVie, as well as Naval Station Great Lakes, the U.S. Navy’s primary technical training command. Juxtaposed with these massive operations is little Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science (RFUMS), a specialized medical research and education institution of just over 2,000 graduate students.

RFUMS is named for Dr. Rosalind Franklin, whose famous x-ray diffraction image known as “Photo 51” helped elucidate the double helical structure of DNA, and is focused exclusively on graduate medical training and translational research. Prior to speaking at an evening event at RFUMS, I toured the institution and was shown the brand new Innovation and Research Park under construction. This investment in incubation infrastructure, along with the institution’s bold decision to organize their research activities by disease areas rather than scientific disciplines, to me demonstrates RFUMS’ commitment to commercial development of research. I expect that this facility will become a unifying hub for the life science community in Lake County.

Back in “The Loop” I visited MATTER, a healthcare-focused incubator. Modeled after the renowned 1871 tech incubator down the hall, MATTER currently supports dozens of digital health, medtech, and therapeutics companies through a variety of services.

One of the notable activities housed at MATTER is the Chicago Innovation Mentors (CIM), a 6-month accelerator program for science-based ventures. I attended one of their monthly meetings while at MATTER, and was delighted to learn that a number of Canadian companies have benefited from the program thanks to the efforts of the local Trade Commissioners out of the Consulate General of Canada in Chicago. A special shout out to Chantal Glass who was invaluable in helping to fill my schedule while in the city! If you’re a Canadian life science company looking for advice on doing business in Chicago or the broader Midwestern US, I recommend getting in touch with Chantal.

Finally, I had the great pleasure of visiting the downtown campus of Northwestern University and learning about the fascinating nanoparticle research done by the lab of Dr. Shad Thaxton. With potential applications in treating cardiovascular disease and cancer, Dr. Thaxton’s lab has benefited from the supportive translational culture at Northwestern and connections to local entrepreneurs and early-stage healthcare investors. Everyone in Canada knows how difficult it can be to secure this kind of early support for a biotech venture, so it’s clear that Chicago has some critical elements in place to seed a thriving bioscience sector.

I had a great few days in Chicago – it’s undeniably energetic yet abounds with Midwestern warmth. There are great things happening in the healthcare sector there, and I encourage young Canadian companies looking to enter the US market to take note.

Restaurant recommendations: Free Rein, GT Fish & Oyster,Mr. Brown’s Lounge

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