By MIRANDA LEITSINGER
March 9, 2003
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - A concept called BIOWA could serve as an umbrella for biotech projects in the state, including producing biochemicals for use in fuel and other products, raising pharmaceutical crops and expanding research.
The concept was developed by a group of farmers, economists, scientists and industry leaders known as Iowa Industries of the Future, using a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
"The purpose was to develop a vision and roadmap for the bioeconomy in Iowa," said Jill Euken, an Iowa State University Extension specialist and a group leader.
Once the group finished drafting the plan, they decided to move ahead, calling their effort BIOWA.
"This is too important to the economic future of Iowa to not just push forward as hard as we can with it," Euken said.
The plan has two main threads: developing technology to use commodity crops and residue and investing in research for high-end biotechnology, such as pharmaceutical crops.
The group cites studies ranking Iowa second in available biomass in the 48 contiguous states. Biomass is material that is available on a renewable basis, such as crops and crop residue, trees and waste streams from animal feeding, food and fiber industries.
The ready availability of this material in Iowa would support industries making energy from plant- or crop-based sources, Euken said.
That could involve expanding businesses already in Iowa, such as ethanol plants, to create biorefineries - a cluster of businesses making chemicals, fuels, power and products, such as plastic, fiber, clothing and perhaps even materials to make cars.
"We really believe we will have biorefineries much like we have petroleum refineries," Euken said.
The plan envisions 10 biorefineries by 2020. It's expected that these biorefineries will provide jobs for engineers and technicians, Euken said.
Brent Erickson, an executive with the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington-based industry group, said there are hurdles to overcome, such as making biomass processing affordable.
Euken acknowledged that implementing this vision will cost billions of dollars, but said it could generate billions more.
The group held several hearings about a year ago across the state to get input. In late January, they presented their plan to state legislators.
On Thursday, Erickson shared the group's plan with officials from Europe, Japan and Australia at an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development task force meeting in Canada.
"I handed this BIOWA thing out to them because we're working on a project right now on the bio-based economy, and I said, 'Here's a great example of what you can do' ..." Erickson said. "They were very impressed with it."
The road map emerges as Gov. Tom Vilsack promotes his $500 million Iowa Values Fund. Vilsack would use half the money for expansion of biotechnology, advanced manufacturing and information technology companies - all considered key to Iowa's future.
Michael Blouin, the state's economic development director, was briefed on the plan, Euken said. Blouin did not return several phone calls last week, but a spokeswoman said agency officials would be interested in seeing how the plan proceeds.
"Biotech industry and the renewable energy are both components of the governor's Iowa Values Fund and to that end we're supportive of any efforts that are out there to look at how those things might improve the economy of our state," Tina Hoffman said.
Iowa faces strong competition from other states interested in developing their biotech industries.
According to an industry survey, 41 states had biotech initiatives in 2001. States such as Tennessee, Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska also are looking to tap into their biomass resources, Erickson said.
Still, he said, Iowa is ahead of the pack.
"A lot of times you get these technology developments happening very quickly and it takes a while for them to sink in to society and kind of trickle down to the state level," Erickson said. "Here is Iowa, out there in front of everybody." Euken said the group already is working on the next stage - giving presentations on the plan to gain support and partners for implementation - and time is of the essence.
"A lot of states have biotech initiatives and they're working as fast as they can ... " Euken said. "The leader is going to be determined in the next few years.
"It just makes a lot of sense for Iowa to at least try."