Ideas Hatching At WMSTI

March 18, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The West Michigan Science & Technology Initiative has given birth to one new enterprise and more are in line to follow.

WMSTI’s first incubator company, Sordal Inc., left the nest in January after developing two products called Solrex and Armarex.

Sordal CEO Dale Danver said Solrex is a nonflammable, very lightweight insulation material originally developed by NASA. The space agency later licensed the patent technology to Danver for commercialization. Danver’s company has been developing the material under U.S. Navy grants for the Navy’s specific needs.

WMSTI, which opened its doors in January 2004, is housed on the top floor of Grand Valley State University’s Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences. WMSTI has about 10,000 square feet of wet lab space and about 15 commercial spaces of 1,500 square feet each available for lease at rates ranging from $12 to $15 per square foot

Space can only be leased by individuals and fledging companies that have an idea or invention that qualifies as an emerging technology, said Matt Dugener, WMSTI executive director.

“It’s important to note that it’s really tough to get in this space. Wet laboratory space in Grand Rapids is an extremely finite resource so there’s a pretty strict process for qualifying,” he noted. “Space is clearly the No. 1 thing that we offer.”

On the service side, Dugener said, WMSTI has a process called “commercialization roadmap” that’s especially helpful to the technical folks who have lots of ideas but little business acumen.

“They tend to be the scientists, researchers or engineers — folks who are really technically sound but maybe don’t have the business background or understanding.”

He said WMSTI will lead a startup through the commercialization roadmap process and outline a step-by-step guide for taking their product to the marketplace — all the way from applied research and prototyping to identifying customers and market strategy. WMSTI staff then meets with clients on a monthly basis to evaluate their progress.

Leases can range from six months up to two years, depending on the complexity of the product and the industry it’s in. Pharmaceutical products, for instance, take a lot longer to develop than IT products, he said.

One tenant’s first-year lease is almost up, so WMSTI’s advisory board will evaluate its progress and look at where the company needs to go over the next year, Dugener said. The advisory board is made up of business owners, venture capitalists and community leaders that review each tenant’s performance.

“If it makes sense for them to stay in this facility, then we’ll make it available to them for another year. We don’t set arbitrary time limits. It really depends on the product they’re developing. There’s no cookie-cutter approach to product development.”

Sordal was WMSTI’s first tenant and had been housed there for nearly 14 months, Dugener said. WMSTI has five remaining tenants at this time. He estimates that a maximum of 10 to 12 emerging tech companies could be incubated on the premises at one time.

“Right now we have two companies that are working on one idea each and a larger company that’s working on anywhere from seven to 10 ideas,” he said. “I’d say approximately 10 to 15 ideas are being hatched at any one time.”

WMSTI also offers a small business development service to client companies that are not tenants of the facility. It’s generally a fee-based service that’s dependent on the level of work WMSTI has to do, he said.

“We are a publicly funded organization, so there are certain things we can do for free, but when it gets to a certain level, we have to charge.”

Through WMSTI’s Biotech Connect program, client companies can tap outside consultants in their industry or area of expertise for help with business development, prototype development, commercialization strategy, financial assistance and more.

All the companies being incubated at this time are startup companies, but Dugener said WMSTI would certainly entertain the possibility of leasing space to existing smaller companies that want to diversify into new industries or take new products to the market but don’t have the kind of facilities they need.

WMSTI receives public funding from GVSU, the city of Grand Rapids SmartZone and the state, on top of tenant rental revenues.

The center works closely with a number of institutions on Michigan Street hill, including the Van Andel Research Institute, Spectrum Health, Saint Mary’s Health Care and Mary Free Bed to help “percolate” some of the ideas and research going on in those institutions, Dugener said.

“We’re trying to pull ideas out of those institutions, as well as help companies and individuals that already have good ideas.”

Dugener pointed out that there are a number of infrastructure components that need to develop in the Grand Rapids area. Some are here already but not fully developed — things like clinical trials, he said.

“We recently got Internet2 installed up on the Hill. A lot of those infrastructure components are something we’re working to coordinate and make available for companies that want to locate here.” 

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