VAI Was Philanthropists Dream

October 20, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Amway co-founder Jay Van Andel and his late wife, Betty Van Andel, decided to locate a biomedical research facility in Grand Rapids because their family roots were firmly grounded in West Michigan and because they were already deeply invested in the region's arts, education, health care and business communities.

The couple's son, David Van Andel — chairman and CEO of the Van Andel Institute —referred to the institute as "the dream of two philanthropists," his father, a businessman, and his mother, an educator.

In a recent address before the Association of Independent Research Institutes (AIRI), which held its annual meeting here Oct. 4-7, Van Andel said his parents knew the people of West Michigan had both a strong work ethic and solid core values.

"They believed that these same ethics, values and community investments would provide a strong foundation for an institution dedicated to improving lives," he told some of the more than 200 CEOs, presidents, administrators and scientists attending the event.

According to Van Andel, his parents' values and beliefs in the free enterprise system led them to establish a cancer research institute independent of a major research university, thus not dependent on government funding.

They believed, he said, that scientists and researchers could do their best work in an environment free of the restraints of government bureaucracy, competing agendas and special interests.

"They believed that when top investigators from around the world came together in a barrier-free environment, they would make groundbreaking progress in finding the genetic and molecular origins of disease.

"They believed that, with access to the latest technology, these researchers could then translate their findings into therapeutic solutions to conquer a host of illnesses."

When the Van Andels founded the VAI in 1996, West Michigan already had what David Van Andel described as "a world-class health care community."

Three years later, Michigan's Life Sciences Corridor — now part of Gov. Jennifer Granholm's Technology Tri-Corridor — was established, paving the way for further growth of the life sciences.

The corridor, a joint venture between the state, several Michigan universities and the VAI, created "unprecedented partnership opportunities" for the VAI and other research institutions, he said.

An outgrowth of the original Life Sciences Corridor program was a consortium called the Core Technology Alliance (CTA), Van Andel recalled. Alliance members are the VAI, University Michigan, and Michigan State and Wayne State universities.

"Through the CTA, these institutions have developed a network of technologically sophisticated core facilities to enhance life sciences research and product development throughout the state," he observed.

Through the Alliance, he added, researchers, biotech and pharmaceutical companies have access to advanced technologies.

Without the CTA, this advanced technology would be unaffordable and inaccessible to a broader user group."

In the years since his parents opened the VAI, Van Andel pointed out, Grand Rapids' health care community has grown to include Grand Valley State University Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences, the Lacks Cancer Center at St. Mary's Mercy Medical Center, and the soon-to-open Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center at Spectrum Health.

Van Andel credited George Vande Woude Ph.D., the executive director of the Van Andel Research Institute, for his leadership and his recruitment of more than 100 top researchers from more than a dozen countries to staff VARI's labs.

Their study of genes and proteins that cause disease, he said, "are revolutionizing our understanding of what triggers disease, how it progresses and how to detect it early enough to save lives."

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