MSU Plan Draws Quick Inquiries

May 14, 2007
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HOLLAND — Right after the news broke Wednesday that Michigan State University intends to start a bioresearch and commercialization center in a donated Pfizer facility, people started clamoring for an “in.”

“Two bioeconomy companies in the area asked if they could have space in the facility. We had a handful of calls from entrepreneurial type, established companies that are growing and want to have access to the center and maybe even access to equipment in the center,” said Randy Thelen, president of the Lakeshore Advantage economic development organization. “We’ve had multiple companies approach us to ask how they could best get engaged with the center and possibly access research.”  

Pfizer Inc. is donating one of its vacant drug development facilities in Holland to MSU to house a bioresearch and commercialization center that the university anticipates will play a lead role development of bioeconomic industries in Michigan.

The agreement calls for the pharmaceutical giant to donate a $50 million pilot plant and research building at 188 Howard Ave. to MSU to house the center, pending approval of the MSU Board of Trustees. Plans for the facility also include a bio-economy business incubator that will support new start-up companies. Thelen has been working with both parties for months to broker the deal.

MSU officials indicated Wednesday that they’d like to begin staffing the center in January 2008. The three-story, 138,000-square-foot Pfizer building was previously used for drug development and includes modern laboratories for up to 100 researchers, which is the number of researchers MSU plans to hire over time. It also features a 125-seat auditorium, library and offices. Work at the center will focus on biofuel research, biomaterials — which could be fabrics or plastics — or biochemicals. Essentially, it’s the kind of research that will help the economy move away from petroleum-based products towards more renewable, plant-based products, Thelen said. 

According to Lakeshore Advantage, bioeconomy for Michigan will help reinvigorate the state’s economic base by connecting strengths in agriculture, forestry and natural resources with the state’s traditional know how in the manufacturing and industrial sectors.

The agreement is expected to be finalized in three months but is contingent upon completion of an operational funding arrangement that will include a combination of federal research grants, private sector corporate research contracts and corporate partnerships, according to Thelen. He said private money is also being raised locally, and partners in the project have approached the state for base-level support, primarily through the 21st Century Jobs Fund.

How much the center will cost to operate annually will vary based on the ultimate research that is done, Thelen said. For example, certain research could drive up the operating cost because it might require the use of more power.

“You can’t determine the cost until you know the exact type of research contracts that are obtained, because they will determine what the ultimate operating costs are,” he said. “But we’ve studied it carefully, and we know what the historic operational costs of that facility has been at full capacity, and we’re comfortable that our plan can accommodate those costs.”

J. Ian Gray, Ph.D., MSU vice president for research and graduate studies, said to his knowledge nobody has done an analysis of the economic impact the bioresearch and commercialization center could have on the Holland community. But he sees the center as “another opportunity where MSU can have an impact on the whole state.”

George Erickcek, senior regional analyst for the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said the economic impact will depend on whether MSU will have full time research staff at the center five days a week or whether researchers will stay in East Lansing and just come and go between the university and the bioresearch center. He said if researchers stay in East Lansing and only head to Holland once or twice a week, the impact would be smaller. If researchers actually move from East Lansing to the Holland area, then the impact would be larger.

“My feelings are that it’s premature to try to estimate what the overall impact will be until we know the staffing policy,” Erickcek said. “If they do move researchers to Holland, then, based on other impact studies we have done, we expect the multiplier effect to be around 1.4 to 1.8. So if there are 10 full-time positions created at the facility, then you would expect maybe four to eight additional jobs in the community being generated.”

Will the center produce any revenue return for the university?

“Through the intellectual property that we hope will be developed and commercialized, MSU will get royalties back, so there will be some return from an expanded program in bioeconomy activity,” Gray said. “The impact for Holland would be the location of some of these small spin-off companies into the Holland area.”

MSU President Lou Anna Simon predicted that corporate partners and world-class researchers, including MSU faculty members, will find that collaboration with MSU’s bioresearch and commercialization center permits convenient scale-up of their cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel, bioplastics and specialty chemical technologies.

“In addition, MSU intends to host researchers from nearby institutions, such as Hope College, and from private sector start-up companies at the site,” Simon said. 

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