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Abortion Issue Could Help Kick-Start Illinois' Life Sciences Industry At Neighboring States' Expense

Fallout from the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June reversing decades of guaranteed abortion rights already has some companies eyeing new locations across state lines — and the state of Illinois is seizing its moment to scoop them up.

Surrounded on nearly all sides by states likely to severely restrict abortion, Illinois and Chicago leaders are rolling out the welcome mat, particularly to life sciences companies like Eli Lilly, which hasn't been silent about the impact of Indiana's newly passed abortion ban set to go into effect Sept. 15.

Eli Lilly and Co.'s corporate center in Indianapolis

With more than 10,000 employees in Indianapolis, the pharmaceutical titan released a statement saying Indiana's near-total ban would force it to plan for growth outside its home state and reassess plans to remain headquartered there in order to continue attracting top talent.

Engineering manufacturing company Cummins joined Lilly with a milder statement expressing opposition to the law, which it referred to as contrary to the company’s goal of attracting a diverse workforce, while healthcare giant Roche is rumored to be formulating its own stance, to be released soon, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.  

In response, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker is making pitches to all three companies and others, noting at an August press conference he welcomed Indiana companies looking to relocate or expand in a state that treats workers well and "protects their individual rights and their families' rights." Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot have penned letters with World Business Chicago to 300 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies located in states where abortion rights are in jeopardy. 

“The governor is in regular contact with numerous business leaders, both in Illinois and nationally, to discuss Illinois’ competitive strengths — including the fact that we have enshrined reproductive rights into law while others are stripping them away,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement to Bisnow.

Luring even a handful of life sciences companies would be a coup for Chicago, which ranks sixth for job growth in life sciences among the nation’s top 25 markets, up 31% from 10,000 jobs in 2015 to 13,200 in 2020, according to a talent report from CBRE.

Allyson Hanson, CEO and executive director of the Illinois Medical District, said the city is well-positioned to meet increased workforce demand and believes the current climate will make Chicago increasingly attractive. She speculated that proactive "first-mover companies" that are in tune with their workforce are considering their options.  

“If you review the listing of companies with extended reproductive benefits like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks and JPMorgan, among many, many others, they offer this benefit because they know it is a sign of support to their workers," Hanson said. "If companies are in states that limit the choices of their workforce for a benefit that they offer, these companies will be considering their alternatives."

When corporations look to make potential moves, talent, infrastructure and location are the first criteria considered, according to John Conrad, president and CEO of Illinois Biotechnology Innovation Organization, or iBIO.

Conrad said the city perfectly fulfills all three and is urging companies to set up shop in places like Fulton Labs and Lincoln Yards. He also said businesses should consider the city’s cheaper cost of living compared to the coasts and take advantage of its especially connective transit system.

“You can easily access either coasts, or anywhere in the world, via O’Hare and Midway, in addition to anywhere in the Midwest where the top 25% of engineering schools all reside within 100 miles of each other,” Conrad said. “In Eli Lilly’s case, it’s an easy trip to its Indianapolis headquarters.”


While most companies are unlikely to launch full-scale relocations, it will be a factor in the expansion plans of some.

“Some companies are going to want to avoid the issue altogether through lobbying and expanding healthcare benefits, but other companies will not be shy about identifying this as a business factor,” said John Boyd, president of The Boyd Co. and a corporate site selection consultant.

Boyd said it remains unclear what impact the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization will have on corporate site selection, though blue-state governors hope it will have one.

“Gov. Pritzker has been very proactive using the decision to create a relationship with companies and introduce other business climate positives," he said. "We’re seeing Gov. [Phil] Murphy in New Jersey follow a similar pattern. We do know that blue-state governors are weaponizing the issue and using it to open the door.”

Boyd cautioned that states with strict abortions laws should remain mindful of the potentially staggering economic fallout that could await them, citing North Carolina’s predicted loss of more than $3.76B and nearly 3,000 jobs over the next dozen years as a direct result of House Bill 2, which passed in 2016 and prevented transgender people from using bathrooms aligning with their gender identity. 

Mark Goodman & Associates principal Mark Goodman said abortion access is only part of a much larger picture when it comes to luring life sciences companies to the city, adding Chicago's market is underserved and not as well established as it should be.

Chicago has historically lacked enough readily available lab space to accommodate the area’s startups, he said. And despite a wealth of science-based resources, such as research hospitals, universities and leading pharmaceutical companies, growing its life sciences ecosystem won't happen without it.

According to World Business Chicago, the city is forecast to deliver up to 5M SF of wet and dry lab space over the next five years in six key neighborhood clusters. When combined with existing space, that would equate to about 8M SF of life sciences space, or 5% of overall office inventory. 

Given that Boston’s lab rents are now $130 per SF net and Chicago’s are around $70 per SF net, conditions are ripe for growth — but probably not due solely to abortion laws, Goodman said.

A post-Roe environment makes Chicago more attractive to an industry that employs a highly skilled workforce on the forefront of breakthroughs in medicine and healthcare, he said, also pointing to the difficulty of attracting talent in cities and states that "disenfranchise half of the workforce."

“Chicago already has an impressive cadre of scientists, research institutions and hospitals that are driving innovation within the life sciences industry, and the state’s commitment to preserve women’s healthcare rights will give Chicago another advantage in recruiting new investment," he said.

On the other hand, it is far from the only, or even most important, consideration for many companies.

“We still have economic realities that are inhibiting the state’s growth, including the violence issues, and I think those are more pressing issues in terms of companies making decisions to locate here than abortion,” he said.