More than 70 research projects have received grants as part of a scheme designed to speed up the commercialisation of research in priority areas.
Speaking at Bournemouth University to launch the Biomedical Catalyst funding, Mr Willetts said that the initiative will “help us to realise treatments that could have remained trapped in the laboratory”.
Among the research projects to secure finance are a blood test that can identify Alzheimer’s disease, a new gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease and a new method for treating cancerous tumours.
Mr Willetts, who was speaking to mark the start of Universities Week, said: “The projects we are funding through the Biomedical Catalyst are testament to the depth and quality of our British research base.
“The UK life science industry is one of the world leaders; it is the third largest contributor to economic growth in the UK.”
He added that the sector is changing, with more focus on collaboration, research outsourcing and earlier clinical trials.
The Medical Research Council and the Technology Strategy Board jointly run the Biomedical Catalyst.
Sir John Savill, chief executive of the MRC, said: “Since its inception, the Biomedical Catalyst has awarded over £170m to UK scientists and businesses. This has been matched by an additional £97m of private investment.”
He added: “The academic-industry partnerships forged through this investment will help to improve lives by delivering the next generation of innovative therapies and will help drive the UK economy.”
Universities Week, which runs from 9-15 June, is celebrating the role that academic research plays in improving people’s lives.