Life Sciences Need Intellectual Capital

September 16, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Since the late 1990s, some $380 million has been invested in hospital expansions and the construction of research labs in the Grand Rapids SmartZone, and $500 million more in life sciences-related facilities will materialize over the next several years.

The Van Andel Institute (VAI) will break ground next year on a $120 million to $150 million expansion that will triple its current size; Spectrum Health will expand DeVos Children’s Hospital; Saint Mary’s will add a science wing; the Michigan Street Medical complex will begin taking shape; Metro Hospital will expand to an entirely new location; and Michigan State University may relocate portions of its College of Human Medicine here.

“What this tells you is that there’s a phenomenal transformation going on right now and that infrastructure is being built in anticipation of the tremendous amount of opportunities and activities that are coming on line,” said David Van Andel, CEO of the VAI, at a life sciences forum at the VAI Wednesday.

As Van Andel pointed out, a 2005 study commissioned by the Michigan Health and Hospital Association shows that health care is already the largest single employer today in Michigan, with more than 35,000 people working in health care in Kent County alone.

Furthermore, the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth projects that by 2015 the state will need to fill more than 100,000 professional and technical health-care jobs.

“If we want to build this industry and want to build it to its full potential, we are going to have to have a talented labor pool to draw from, and we’re going to have to have these people educated and ready to go when they enter the work force,” Van Andel said.

“If we want to get ahead and transform our economy into a bigger economy, we have to have the intellectual capital: We have to attract it, we have to train it and we have to retain it. When we bring in those researchers, those entrepreneurs, the doctors, the nurses and support staff, we’re that much closer to making an impact on human health a reality.”

Essential to that goal is the integration of Michigan’s technologically sophisticated core facilities, said Gary Tarpley, Ph.D., chair of the scientific advisory board for the Core Technology Alliance (CTA). CTA is a consortium of public and private research entities that serves as a catalyst for the development of life sciences and biotechnology research.

CTA’s mission is to foster an environment of scientific collaboration throughout the Life Sciences Corridor by providing researchers access to advanced technologies, attracting and retaining the brightest scientists, and stimulating research and development initiatives. In the five years since the Life Sciences Corridor was established, 400 new startup companies have formed in Michigan.

An estimated $4 billion will be spent this year on pharmaceutical research and development outsourcing, and it could increase to $6 billion in the next 18 months, Tarpley said. That represents a “tremendous” opportunity for scientists to access technology and bring innovation to the pharmaceutical industry.

Tarpley said there is “unparalleled” opportunity in molecular medicine and in drug discovery, development and commercialization.

Those opportunities extend to entrepreneurs who could commercialize new technologies and discoveries.

As Van Andel noted, some of the area’s traditional manufacturing bases are slowly beginning to make the necessary transformation, applying their manufacturing prowess in the automotive sector to the manufacture of technical and medical devices required by the life sciences.

Mark Murray, president of Grand Valley State University, said that refocusing the state’s economy from manufacturing to life sciences and bioscience has become crucial as plant after plant in Michigan has been shuttered.

“This is absolutely a critical moment in the history of this state,” Murray said. “We have to infuse some sense of urgency; it’s essential to the future of the 10 million people in this state.”

But how will the state ensure that it has the intellectual capital to meet the future demands of the burgeoning health care industry when it ranks 29th in the nation in terms of percentage of population with a bachelor’s degree or higher?

Panelist Michael Jandernoa, principal of Bridge Street Capital Partners, said the state needs to do more to attract scientists to Michigan and that more could be done to mine the technology and resources of colleges and universities to build up the talent pool.

“But we’re on the right track,” he said. “We’ve been investing for five years and we need to keep that investment going and keep that multiplying factor going.”

To attract good quality people a community has to have good quality schools because communities revolve around schools and schools enhance the quality of life, said Judith Bailey, president of Western Michigan University.

“And once we get them and educate them we have to create opportunities for them to stay here,” Van Andel added.

Michigan doesn’t invest enough in math and science education in grades K-12, and the number of students pursuing math and science is “very, very dismal,” said Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place Inc. On top of that, Michigan’s universities are no longer getting as many foreign students at the master’s degree and Ph.D. levels because technical visas were cut from 195,000 to 60,000 after 9/11.

“Before we can really grow our own scientists, we have to have students coming out of our public high schools that know math and science,” Klohs remarked.

To Jeff Mason, senior vice president of technology development for the Michigan Economic Development Corp., it has to start at the grass roots. “We have to ignite our children’s imagination about what sciences and life sciences have to offer. Until we can expose them at a young age to the VAI and facilities around the state and show them the possibilities, they won’t take that road and fulfill the dream.”

Jandernoa said the CTA and the university presidents have been “wildly” successful in bringing additional research dollars to Michigan. But commercialization is the final step in the process and Michigan hasn’t been as successful in that arena, with too much outsourcing.

“We need to continue not just bringing in the research dollars but working on the commercialization aspect,” Jandernoa said. “On the business side, we have to help with capital, management resources and infrastructure.”    

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