WMU Gets Life Sciences Funding

June 23, 2003
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LANSING — The Michigan Senate’s higher education budget bill added $10 million to Western Michigan University’s base funding to help create a research center aimed at keeping Pfizer-Pharmacia scientists in Michigan.

The merger of Pfizer and Pharmacia is expected to result in the loss of a large number of pharmaceutical research jobs, but just how many is still unknown.

Sen. Tom George, R-Texas Township, said he was pleased that his senate colleagues recognized “the importance of retaining Kalamazoo’s unique intellectual resources” and called the $10 million allocation for a Western Michigan University Life Sciences Research and Commercialization Center an import step in keeping jobs in the Kalamazoo valley.

The center would be distinguished from other university-based research facilities in that it would involve both basic and applied research, including clinical testing and product concepts for manufacture, said Matt Kurz, associate vice president of WMU’s office of university relations.

Furthermore, it would draw researchers from the pharmaceutical industry, he said.

The range of experiences and the talent available here in Kalamazoo as a result of its long history with Upjohn and Pharmacia is very diverse and allows for not just the pure research ends of it but taking a product all the way to the market,” Kurz said.

Among other things, the center would nurture startups that provide pharmaceutical research services. Its presence alone would create new businesses, Kurz added.

Activities could include basic research in a particular area, or taking a product in an early stage of discovery to the next level through clinical trials, or taking a product that’s been through clinical trials and making the adjustments necessary to commercialize it, he explained.

Jack Luderer, M.D., vice president of university research, said the center would not necessarily be linked only to scientists who want to start business, but to scientists that want to engage in life sciences research.

Commercialization might be another outlet for these scientists but it isn’t necessarily all limited to business formation,” Luderer noted.

From our perspective it’s a chance to do something very unique in that it would be staffed by pharmaceutical scientists who would have the opportunity to pursue research on an academic campus but yet have a lot of it be focused on commercialization activity.”

Luderer spent many years with Upjohn and then Pharmacia in medical affairs and has “great insight” into the industry, Kurz said.

He’s come up with a paradigm here that is a little bit different from what some of the other research centers in the state are doing.

It’s one that could fit very nicely in with those research centers and could partner with them on some of the work being done. He’s seeing a lot of different opportunities here.”

For instance, something could be developed at an early stage in Ann Arbor or at the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids and at a later stage could be turned over to the WMU center, he said.

The secured funding is about two-thirds of what will be needed, at least initially, Kurz said. “We’re looking at a level of about $15 million.”

He said WMU would try to parlay that $10 million state appropriation with available private sector funding. Researchers at the center also would seek grant funding and, perhaps, subcontract work for pharmaceutical companies, he noted.

Initially, the center would probably operate out of existing WMU lab facilities, he said.

One of the ideal things about starting it at a university like ours is that we have the infrastructure in place and that really speeds up the process.”

Besides facilities on campus, the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center will be opening in WMU’s Business and Technology Research Park.

Facilities may even become available through Pfizer in areas that they won’t have any more use for in the future, he added.

We don’t want to put startup capital for this kind of enterprise into bricks and mortar. We want to put it into intellectual property. There are a lot of options in terms of facilities.”

Rep. Jerry Kooiman, R-Grand Rapids, had expressed concern about a $10 million allocation for the center when it was proposed more than two weeks ago and also questioned why such an allocation should come out of the higher education budget.

“If there is $10 million out there for the life sciences funding, let’s use that money to benefit all of the life science institutions — not just one,” he said at the time.

“The Van Andel Institute, the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State have been working together for several years to advance the biotechnology field and bring high paying jobs to Michigan. We should fully fund these institutions rather than create an institution that we might have difficulty funding in the future.”

He pointed out that the VAI and three universities in the Life Sciences Corridor have incurred significant budget cuts, which will result in the loss of researchers in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Detroit and Lansing.

“This is not just a Kalamazoo issue,” Kooiman said. “Several communities are being impacted.”

Kurz doesn’t view the creation of a WMU research and commercialization center as just a local issue.

“This is a state issue,” he said. “Life sciences are judged by many to be the future of the state of Michigan, and there is a great deal of infrastructure in life sciences located on the western side of the state, not just here in Kalamazoo, but with the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids and everywhere in between.”

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