VAI Dreams Become Reality

May 15, 2002
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Editor’s Note: This is the fifth story in a 10-part series profiling the Business Journal’s nominees for Newsmaker of the Year.

GRAND RAPIDS — Its founders hope it becomes a finder-outer.

And why shouldn’t they?

This week, the Van Andel Institute finds out it has become the first project to earn a second Business Journal Newsmaker-of-the-Year nomination.

Two years ago, the $200 million gift from Jay and Betty Van Andel gained its first nomination — as their dreamy invitation to a healthier quality of life for the world, and as their visionary enticement for a medical and bio-tech business sector for the state.

“I think it finally means the concrete example of a dream they’ve had for some time now actually beginning,” said David Van Andel, VAI chairman and CEO, of his parents’ feelings in January 1999 when the institute’s building plans were revealed.

“This is a beautiful building that portrays a measure of what we’re trying to do,” added then-VAI President Dr. Luis Tomatis, who has since stepped down to take an advisory role.

Then the dream became reality last May 10 when Jay Van Andel used gold scissors to cut the DNA-like ribbon that formally opened the institute’s $60 million first phase.

“There are many such diseases we don’t know much about. Today, with our capability of using expanded knowledge stored on computers we can find out a lot more than we’ve ever been able to find out,” he said then. “I hope this institution will be at the top of the list of the finder-outers.”

The desire to be a top finder-outer is the stuff true newsmakers are made of, and that is why the Business Journal Editorial Board named the Van Andel family and their institute as one of the 10 finalists for the 2000 award.

The Van Andels first revealed their intentions to create the institute in July 1996, a facility that will be funded by a significant gift from the family’s foundation. Although the specific financial figures have not been disclosed, nor are these ever likely to be made public, the Van Andels have pledged that the institute will be one of the largest philanthropic research efforts in history.

Although the VAI is singular in name, the Van Andels are in fact funding two separate institutes.

One is for medical research in genetics, biochemistry, structural and molecular biology and chemistry, with a major emphasis on cancer research. George F. Vande Woude heads the medical institute. The other concentrates on educational matters. Its initial emphasis is to probe fundamental issues, ranging from how the learning process actually works to cultural developments on educational leadership. Gordon J. Van Wylen, former president of Hope College, directs those efforts.

Combining the medical with the educational has impressed both of those particular communities. Even before a brick was laid, they compared the VAI to such highly respected institutions as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md.

But praise for the VAI wasn’t limited to those two groups. The business community also has had plenty to say, especially the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

The MEDC, the state’s economic developer, is counting heavily on the VAI to be the western jewel of its distinct dream — the Life Sciences Corridor, a stretch of bio-medical research universities, institutes and businesses that would run from southeastern Michigan to just south of Michigan Street at 333 Bostwick Ave. in Grand Rapids.

“They bring a great ability to spin off start-up companies through incubation. They really will play a very vital role in the long-term development of our corridor,” said Michael Finney, vice president of emerging business sectors for the MEDC.

“Western Michigan University, I think, is a key player as well, and they have great potential to participate,” he added. “But certainly the commitment that Van Andel has made makes the western side of the corridor significantly stronger.”

Finney told the Business Journal that the commitment made by the VAI to the state was “impressive, by any standards,” possibly only topped by the promise it holds for the state.

“The facilities that they have, the endowments that they have, are pretty incredible,” said Finney. “They’ve positioned themselves to go after orders of magnitude, more research dollars at a federal level than comes into the state right now.

“They also bring the ability to attract world-class scientists from all over the world. In September of last year, they were able to attract international scientists, Nobel laureates, and that is a capability that didn’t exist in the state prior to the Van Andel Institute. They also bring a significant level of expertise in cancer research and the development of therapies to deal with cancer in our society.”

The Business Journal Newsmaker-of-the-Year Award will be presented on March 8 at a special luncheon with the Grand Rapids Rotary Club. The VAI joins the state’s restructuring of the electric-power industry, the purchase of Old Kent by Fifth Third Bank, the creativity of Gentex Corp. and the hard work of retired Davenport University Chancellor Donald Maine as the nominees announced so far. The remaining five of the year’s top 10 will be revealed in the coming weeks.

“One day, I have no doubt, cures will be found all around,” said past President Gerald R. Ford at last May’s unveiling of the city’s future finder-outer. “All because of Jay and Betty Van Andel and their belief, and their willingness to act upon that belief.”

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