Michigan Displays Its Bio Smarts

April 14, 2006
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CHICAGO — Michigan biotechnology and life sciences companies were among more than 1,500 companies and institutions worldwide that showcased their biotech savvy at the BIO 2006 Annual International Convention in Chicago last week.

More than 20,000 people involved in health care, agricultural, industrial and environmental biotechnology research and development in 31 countries attended the April 9-12 convention.

“This is the largest gathering of the biosciences industry in the world,” said Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place Inc. “Everybody in the industry, from pharmaceuticals to bioscience to ag-bioscience to universities to tech transfer organizations to companies in all of those industries across the board are there. Everybody who’s anybody in the industry exhibited there, attended seminars, and had private meetings, etc. In my opinion, BIO is the place to be if you want to play in this game.”

Klohs said visitors to the state’s booths were looking for information about what Michigan is doing in biosciences, what research is being done, what venture capital the state possesses and what partnership opportunities are available with companies already operating in Michigan. Some, too, were simply looking for new customers.

“Michigan showed very, very well. We had phenomenal booths. The traffic was terrific,” she said. “We generated excellent interest, and I had a number of very fine meetings myself representing our region. I had a number of really, really good meetings with bio-regions in Europe to do potential collaboratives. I made enormous contacts in Germany that are going to be paying off for me for a long time.”

The Michigan Pavilion at the annual convention is a collaborative effort among the Michigan Economic Development Corp., local partners like Right Place, and other regions around the state. Pavilion participants included West Michigan Science & Technology Initiative, Van Andel Institute, Core Technology Alliance, MichBio, Oakland County Planning & Economic Development Services, Southwest Michigan Innovation Center, Central Michigan University and about a dozen bioscience companies.

Matt Dugener, executive director of the West Michigan Science and Technology Initiative, said there was a lot of international interest in Michigan this year. Based on the traffic at state booths, Dugener believes that Michigan is becoming much more recognized as player in the life sciences.

“I think in previous years we were more limited to Midwest exposure, in terms of folks who knew about Michigan and what was going on. This year, it seemed like there was significantly more traffic from Asia and Europe.”

Dugener said WMSTI’s focus was to help West Michigan companies navigate their way through the maze of activities at the massive conference, as well as market the community to companies that might want to locate in Grand Rapids.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm and James Epolito, head of the MEDC, attended BIO to encourage life sciences entrepreneurs and companies to grow in Michigan. MEDC spokesman Paul Krepps said it was the first time a Michigan governor directly participated in the international event.

Grand Rapids-based ATEK Medical Manufacturing exhibited at BIO for the first time this year to explore international opportunities, said sales rep Louis Weijers. ATEK is a contract manufacturer of disposable medical devices that specializes in forming strategic partnerships with companies in the medical device and equipment industry. It makes devices  for original equipment manufacturers like Stryker and Medtronic.

In a phone interview from the convention floor on Tuesday, Weijers said his company’s goal at the convention was to meet with representatives of some of the low-cost manufacturing countries.

“That is still a solution that our customers are requiring from us today,” he said. “Singapore is one of the options that we’re considering. We’re also considering Costa Rica as a low-cost solution, as well.”

He said ATEK also is looking for foreign companies that might want to manufacture products in the United States. A lot of countries represented at BIO were there to share contact information, network and check out the potential opportunities available. ATEK hopes to eventually land a deal as a result of its attendence at the convention.

Weijers said he also had a one-on-one with the governor to see how the state might work with ATEK to bring jobs to Michigan and, at the same time, help ATEK grow.

“A lot of times these companies want us to take over their manufacturing, but it’s very costly to move manufacturing over from one state to another state. One thing that we proposed to the governor was to help us in the cost of moving production lines, which will generate jobs here in Michigan.”

ATEK, for example, has a company in Virginia that wants to outsource its manufacuting process to Michigan. For ATEK, Weijers explained, it makes more sense to move the production lines to Grand Rapids, where the company is headquartered, than to open a whole new ATEK company in Virginia to serve a couple of production lines there.

“If we can make it attractive to our customers to move these production lines to Michigan and the state can help us do that, at the same time we’ll help save and create jobs in Michigan. The governor was very open to that.”

Natalie Lowell attended the convention on behalf of the international organization known as the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, for which she serves as member relations manager.

“Our current constituency already has a great skill set at producing in the automotive and aerospace sectors,” she explained. “They’re doing a great job, but how can they look at taking the same type of processes that they’re already doing and transfer that and diversify their businesses? In particular, what I’m looking for are companies that are willing to help our members diversify into the medical industry. This has been an overwelmingly positive experience. I’m excited about the feedback I’ve been receiving.”

Granholm announced at the convention Monday that 505 project proposals will compete for up to $100 million in awards from the state’s new 21st Century Jobs Fund, which supports commercialization, capital investment and commercial lending to help companies turn their research findings into marketable products and services. She said the response was “beyond our wildest projections.”

According to the MEDC, more than $1.1 billion in 21st Century Jobs funds have been requested; a total of 164 proposals for funding are in the area of life sciences, 144 in advanced automotive, manufacturing and materials, 81 in homeland security/defense and 45 in alternative energy. Eighteen West Michigan companies and institutions have requested funding, including the Van Andel Institute, with five proposals; Grand Valley State University, also with five proposals; and Elkins Innovations Inc., International Met Systems, Battle Creek Unlimited, Robertson Research Institute, SecureMatrix LLC, and Micro Co-Gen Inc., among others.

The newly created Strategic Economic Investment and Commercialization Board will bestow the awards by July 31 based on recommendations of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

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