If attendance at April’s BIO International Convention, the world's largest gathering of biotech leaders, is an indicator of the industry’s health, the current outlook is far from rosy. This year’s BIO in Chicago saw 3000 fewer attendees and 300 fewer exhibitors than in Boston, BIO’s host in 2012.

Even anti-GM protesters were less numerous (and much less visible) than in 2012 and the opening reception had to do without caged dancers, which for whatever reason graced the stage at BIO’s main reception last year.

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Yet, 20 years after the first BIO convention was held, the industry has many reasons to celebrate. The biotech sector, with its high salaries and capital-hungry facilities, has long been considered a hugely promising sector.

fDi Markets data reveals the level of greenfield investments into life sciences in the US has not been affected by the crisis, and the sector has attracted more than $10bn since 2007, twice as much as the aerospace sector, creating an estimated 24,000 jobs, three times as many as renewables.

However, when it comes to locations, the majority of biotech projects in the US is won by the three usual suspects: Massachusetts, North Carolina and California. These states are seen as offering access to the best biotech schools and venture capital. Yet there is a growing number of states with budding biotech sectors.

Georgia riches

Georgia is well on its way to breaking into the upper echelons of the biotech elite, securing the biggest life sciences project in the US in 2012. Baxter International, an Illinois-headquartered pharmaceutical giant, plans to build a $1bn plant in Stanton Springs, a business park located just outside of Atlanta, providing jobs for 1500 people.

Chris Cummiskey, Georgia's economic development commissioner, says that what makes Georgia especially attractive for investment in life sciences is its Quick Start programme. Funded by the state, Quick Start is a workforce training scheme for companies willing to invest or expand in the state.

“More than anything else, our talent base is what drives biotech in the state. We pay for the training and we guarantee the quality of our workforce,” says Mr Cummiskey. In the case of Baxter, the state pledged to build a biotech training centre and provide the company with customised training, as well as assist it during a recruitment phase.

There is a strong case for keeping Baxter happy, according to David B Hartnett, vice-president of Metro Atlanta Chamber, a local chamber of commerce. He makes the analogy that when a location attracts a Home Depot, then it is likely to attract rival home improvement retailer Lowe's soon after. With Georgia winning the investment from biotech’s version of Home Depot, Lowe’s equivalent in the life sciences industry should follow, believes Mr Hartnett.

Indiana's hidden charms

Indiana, a state known more for racetracks than life sciences, also had a very good year in 2012. In June, Basel-headquartered pharmaceuticals firm Roche announced it would expand its Indianapolis base. The project, which is scheduled for completion in 2017, is expected to create 100 jobs and cost $300m.

And in November, Eli Lilly, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the US, announced a $140m expansion of its insulin-manufacturing operations in Indianapolis. “Investors can go to Massachusetts because it is famous [for its biotech sector], but if they want to determine where their dollar is best spent, they will chose Indiana,” says Victor Smith, Indiana’s secretary of commerce.

“If you look at various rankings, Indiana is always in the top five when it comes to things such as research and development, access to workforce, grants and fundraising,” adds Chris Eckerle, director of life sciences at Indiana Economic Development Corporation.

Pennsylvania potential

Pennsylvania is still waiting for big wins, but is heading in the right direction, with the state's governor winning the BIO Governor Award at this year’s convention. The award acknowledges the work governor Tom Corbett has done to promote biotech in the state, which includes increasing the R&D tax credit by $15m and assembling the Life Sciences Leadership Advisory Council, a local partnership between business, government and academia aimed at improving operating conditions in the industry.

“This industry makes up $8bn of our economy and we expect it to grow, as biotech becomes bigger across the country and as our state becomes more competitive with others,” says Mr Corbett.

New Jersey's momentum

In 2012, the BIO Governor Award went to Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey. Kim Guadagno, the state’s lieutenant governor, collected the award on Mr Christie’s behalf. However, she took home more than just a commemorative plaque. “Last year we had a number of investments that were initiated at BIO,” says Ms Guadagno, who adds that plans for this year are equally as ambitious.

At this year’s BIO, New Jersey hosted an exclusive dinner for 29 biotech companies from 15 countries, which were defined as potential investors to the state. “We put a lot of emphasis on researching companies and selecting those that have given us reasons to believe that they might be interested in coming to our state. We did that last year and the model proved to be successful,” says Ms Guadagno.

Biodollars and jobs have been seen for nearly two decades as a cure for local economies. Yet many states had to swallow a bitter pill and accept the fact that established biotech clusters attract the large chunk of all investments. Nonetheless, Georgia, Indiana, New Jersey and Pennsylvania seem to be proving that when it comes to economic development, persistence can bring great rewards.