VAI Has Breakthrough Year

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Its founders had hoped that the Van Andel Institute would become a "finder-outer" in the field of scientific research. Last Thursday, Chairman and CEO David Van Andel found out that such a vision is worthy of Newsmaker of the Year accolades from the Grand Rapids Business Journal.

Van Andel and the institute that bears his family’s name were honored during a Grand Rapids Rotary luncheon for their present contributions to the area’s economy as much as their future vision for medical and bio-tech research.

Business Journal Editor Carole Valade Copenhaver said the decision was a tough one for the Editorial Board, due to the strength of this year’s 10 nominees, but one that came to the forefront when all the factors were considered.

“Once again, the Newsmaker of the Year represents the very best of Grand Rapids: A clear vision of the future, the very brightest individuals in their respective fields of study and partnerships that sustain not only Grand Rapids but an entire state and beyond,” she said.

But the VAI represents more than medicine. Its well-rounded platform actually includes a pair of 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 education. 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.

The scope of the institute, which opened in May, has made it a fitting western anchor of the state’s Life Sciences Corridor, a stretch of bio-medical research universities, institutes and businesses that run from here to southeastern Michigan.

“It’s incredible and incredibly exciting,” Valade Copenhaver said of the VAI. “It touches elite scientists and researchers, academic institutions, K-12 education and business known and as yet unknown.”

Plans for Jay and Betty Van Andel’s $200 million VAI first surfaced in 1996, but at that time there was less than full understanding of what the institute would mean to West Michigan — and beyond. Now, however, those dreams are growing exponentially and concrete examples are springing forth. In September, the VAI hosted a symposium that attracted several Nobel laureates and world class scientists and researchers to the banks of the Grand. But that may be just a hint of things to come.

“From its noted founders, it is an unexceeded, unrivaled gift of healing to the world,” Valade Copenhaver said.

It also could act as an unrivaled boost to the local economy.

“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 Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

He termed the VAI’s facilities and endowments “incredible.”

“They’ve positioned themselves to go after orders of magnitude, more research dollars at a federal level than comes into the state right now.”

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