CLEVELAND - As a state with a rich history of invention - home to the likes of Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers - it's fitting that Ohio plays host to this year's BIO Midwest Venture Forum.

"Ohio has a long pedigree of innovators and inventors," said Tony Dennis, president and CEO of Omeris, a non-profit organization aimed at building the bioscience industry in Ohio.

The two-day conference, beginning here today at the Intercontinental Hotel and Conference Center, provides an "opportunity for small and emerging companies to showcase what they're doing, and for [venture capitalists] around the world to take a look a look at some of those firms and decide whether they want to invest," Dennis said.

This is the fourth annual conference set in the Midwest, and is sponsored by Ohio, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Several years ago, those states, along with the Midwest Health Investors Network, began seeking a way to gain greater visibility about the same time that the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) began looking to conduct an event in the region.

"It's an area that has been growing for quite some time," said Alan Eisenberg, BIO's executive vice president of business development and emerging companies, and "we have been paying attention to it for a number of reasons, not just health care but for the whole of biotechnology, including the agricultural sectors as well as industrial and environmental."

As a show of interest in the Midwest, BIO held its annual convention earlier this year in Chicago.

More than 300 biotech companies have been established in the Midwest, and more continue to emerge. According to BioEnterprise, a Cleveland-based incubator, about $287 million was invested in health care start-ups during the first half of 2006. Of those funds, about $154 million was put into biopharma firms, with $87 million to medical device companies and $46 million to service firms.

At this year's conference there will be a "strong number" of VCs, Eisenberg told BioWorld Today, with an "increased presence of angel investors attending."

About 75 companies are expected to present over the next two days. Among those are nine companies from the host state, including four Cleveland-based firms: Arteriocyte Inc., CleveX, Copernicus Therapeutics Inc., and Interventional Imaging Inc.

Over the past couple of years, the city of Cleveland has had a "phenomenal pace of company formation," said Omeris' Dennis. With institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western University, it's a "really robust environment."

Statewide, the bioscience sector includes a total of 775 companies, and that figure includes pharma, biotech, medical device and other bioscience-related firms. In 2005, about $1.2 billion was invested in that sector through angel funding, venture capital, initial public offerings and grant funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Of that total, $717 million came from NIH sources, Dennis said. And the number of new companies continues to grow.

"About five years ago, we were forming companies roughly at the rate of a dozen per year," he told BioWorld Today. "For the past two years, we've been averaging about 38 companies per year."

One reason for that growth is Gov. Bob Taft's Third Frontier program, which aims to provide $1.6 billion over a 10-year period for business development. During the first four years of the program, about 58 percent went into bioscience. Since those dollars have to be matched by a 2-to-1 ratio, "we've actually had $300 million to $350 million go [into that sector] in just the past three or four years," Dennis said.

The state of Ohio also is making an effort to invest in seed, pre-seed and early stage funds and, since the inception of the Third Frontier program, has created 18 new funds.

"So there are a lot of initiatives aimed at entrepreneurism and company start-ups," Dennis said.

In addition, a number of established companies are building or expanding operations in Ohio, such as San Diego-based Amylin Pharmaceuticals Inc., which selected the Midwestern state as the site of its biomedical manufacturing facility.

Ohio has long been known for its clinical and translational medicine expertise, and 22 percent of all clinical trials in the U.S. are conducted in Ohio, Dennis said, a fact that carries some historical significance.

As a major hub during the industrial revolution around the turn of the last century, Ohio saw the emergence of a number of clinics to help keep the growing population of factory workers healthy, said Dennis, and that "tradition still shows today."

Several notable Ohioans, including Gov. Taft, are scheduled to speak at the forum. Other speakers include BIO President and CEO Jim Greenwood and acting FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach.

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