Wisconsin Sizes Up Recent, Potential Future Changes in Manufacturing

When Greg Piefer founded Phoenix Nuclear Labs, in 2005, he was not expecting that it would one day lead to the construction of a large medical isotope manufacturing facility.

In the dozen years it’s been operating, Monona, WI-based Phoenix has developed particle accelerator technology with applications in areas such as weapons inspection, solar cell production, and healthcare. However, about a year after Phoenix was incorporated, Piefer says he saw an opportunity to develop separate technology that could be used downstream from Phoenix’s, to produce radioisotopes used for medical imaging.

Due in part to a potential future shortage in molybdenum-99—a crucial medical isotope that decays into technetium-99m, the most widely used radioisotope in medical diagnostic imaging—Piefer eventually decided to form a second company, Shine Medical Technologies.

Since launching in 2010, Shine has raised tens of millions of dollars in grant funding and outside investment. Last year, the pre-revenue company moved its headquarters to Janesville, WI, where it plans to break ground on an 11,500-square-foot prototype production facility later this summer. If all goes as planned, Shine will begin building a larger plant about a year from now, and go into full production in 2020, says Katrina Pitas, the company’s vice president of business development.

Shine has been checking off many of the requirements to start manufacturing molybdenum-99, which helps healthcare workers perform things like stress tests and bone scans, and diagnose other medical conditions. The global market for the isotope is about $600 million each year, Piefer says.

While the fact that the company has been able to progress to this point doesn’t come as a surprise to Piefer and other executives, its current preparations to build production facilities and manufacture isotopes there represent new ground for Shine.

“We had an idea, we developed a technology, and we proved it,” Piefer says. “All of a sudden, we needed to build this manufacturing facility.”

Shine’s anticipated foray into manufacturing highlights some broader currents in the sector, such as efforts to train or retrain future workers with the skills they’ll need on the job.

Manufacturing has long been a staple of Wisconsin’s economy, but a number of factors, including automation, have ushered in major changes. The state, along with a handful of others, is attracting national attention as Foxconn, a prominent Taiwanese electronics assembler, considers expanding its U.S. operations. But it’s not clear whether Wisconsin has the number and type of workers needed to support such a project, or whether young people today possess the same enthusiasm for manufacturing jobs as in past generations.

Pitas says Shine expects to triple its current employee count, to 150, by the time its larger plant is operating fully. The company anticipates hiring up to 60 people over the next two years to staff its manufacturing facilities. Radiation protection technicians, hot cell operators, and logistics specialists are among the positions Shine expects it will need to fill. For the majority of them, Shine will be looking for people with a two-year associate degree or the equivalent, she says.

Shine has partnered with two Wisconsin community colleges with the goal of helping students learn skills that will likely continue to be in demand in the technology and healthcare industries, Pitas says. Both Blackhawk Technical College (in Janesville) and Lakeshore Technical College (in Cleveland, WI) are getting set to offer programs in nuclear technology and health physics, starting this fall.

“Blackhawk has been extremely supportive of Shine’s needs for skilled technical workers,” Pitas says.

A similar partnership exists between Cellara, a Madison, WI-based startup that’s developing documentation software for researchers who work in stem cell culture … Next Page »

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