Article by Judy Newman, Wisconsin State Journal. Full article here. 

Cellular Dynamics International, the company founded by internationally renowned UW-Madison stem cell pioneer James Thomson, plans to leave Madison for Verona.

CDI gave the Verona Plan Commission an initial look, earlier this month, at a proposal for a new building just east of the Verona Technology Park, which is at the southeast corner of highways PB and M.

The building would be about 100,000 square feet of laboratory and office space and could house about 200 people, according to documents submitted to the city, Verona planning and development director Adam Sayre said.

“The plan commission was very excited about it,” Sayre said.

The property, on Kettle Moraine Trail, is owned by developer John K. Livesey. Livesey will build and own the building, and CDI will lease it.

The project’s size and cost have not been finalized, Livesey said, and the company is not giving out many details.

“CDI remains committed to investing in the growth of the company in the Wisconsin region and contributing to the strength of our rapidly expanding biotechnology cluster, but we are not able to provide additional information concerning Verona at this time,” said Kaz Hirao, chairman and CEO, in a statement.

Established in 2004 by Thomson, one of the world’s leading stem cell researchers, CDI, 525 Science Drive, has grown to become a major stem cell manufacturer. The company uses adult tissue or blood samples and reverts the cells to their embryonic form, then reprograms them, primarily into heart, liver, nerve or customized cells.

Researchers and drug developers use the cells — made in Madison in mass quantities — to test for toxic reactions or to test as disease fighters. CDI and partner organizations also created a stem cell bank in California.

Japanese conglomerate Fujifilm Holdings Corp. bought the company for $307 million in 2015, nearly two years after CDI started selling its shares on the Nasdaq market.

CDI now has about 160 employees, with about 25 of them in California and the rest in Madison. The company is working on potential stem cell treatments — using the cells it manufactures — for age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa; Parkinson’s disease; and to replace scarred heart muscle after a heart attack. It recently split into two units, one focusing on cellular therapeutics and the other, on life science markets.

With Thomson’s involvement, CDI is, perhaps, one of the Madison area’s better known and respected biotechnology companies.

Leaving Madison

For the past 12 years, CDI has been housed in University Research Park, a West Side business and technology park that specializes in furthering young companies, especially those developed from UW-Madison research.

CDI did consider other sites in the research park, said University Research Park managing director Aaron Olver.

“We would love to have them stay and grow here,” Olver said. “They’re getting big and need a big, new facility.” But the company was looking for a more “industrial setting” than the research park could provide, he said.

Matthew Mikolajewski, economic development director for the city of Madison, said Mayor Paul Soglin sent a letter to CDI officials in August, through Olver, indicating support for the company’s expansion.

“We did, in the letter of support, highlight the fact that the site they were considering is immediately adjacent to the University Research Park tax incremental finance district and indicated a willingness to expand that,” Mikolajewski said. “To the best of my knowledge, I don’t recall them responding back to us.”

Near other biotechs

The Verona site CDI has chosen is on the opposite side of the city from Epic Systems Corp., the electronic health records company that left Madison for Verona in 2005 with 2,000 employees. Today, Epic has nearly 10,000 employees and continues to add buildings to its campus on Verona’s northwest side.

CDI’s location on Verona’s southeast side is near two other biotechs: SAFC and United Vaccines.

SAFC built at the site in 2010 and expanded its facilities there in 2014. The company also has a location in University Research Park, at 645 Science Drive.

SAFC is a contract manufacturer for the biopharmaceutical industry. It makes the active pharmaceutical ingredient for a number of drugs. SAFC was a subsidiary of Sigma-Aldrich, of St. Louis; then Sigma-Aldrich joined with EMD Millipore in late 2015. Now known as MilliporeSigma, it is part of the German drug company Merck.

Meanwhile, United Vaccines is completing a $25 million, 57,000-square-foot laboratory building nearby. United Vaccines makes and tests veterinary vaccines for the mink industry and has more than 50 employees.

Together, CDI, SAFC and United Vaccines may be creating a new biotechnology cluster in Verona. “We hope so,” Verona’s Sayre said. “If we can get a cluster going … it only increases our chances of attracting more businesses like these,” he said.

Sayre said the city of Verona is “in conversations” with developer Livesey about the possibility of creating a new tax incremental financing district that would include the CDI property along with some parcels of land within the adjacent Verona Technology Park.

Lisa Johnson, CEO of BioForward, the nonprofit organization that represents Wisconsin’s bio-health companies, said CDI is “still defining itself” and has not reached the revenues or prestige of companies such as Fitchburg biotech products company Promega; Middleton instrument company Gilson; or Exact Sciences, the Madison company whose Cologuard stool test screens for colorectal cancer.

Johnson said, though, she is pleased Fujifilm decided to invest in Wisconsin rather than consolidating elsewhere.

“BioForward certainly sees Fujifilm as a critical partner as we market Wisconsin’s bio-health industry,” Johnson wrote in an email exchange. “It is a great story that we would like to see happen more often.”