Life Sciences Cooperative Effort Eyed

August 17, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Existing life sciences companies in this region can assist The Right Place Inc. and Southwest Michigan First in their efforts to draw more life sciences investment, research and entrepreneurs to the greater West Michigan area simply by doing business together.

“Do business in West Michigan first, if at all possible, and if you can’t find a supplier for your needs, let us know and we’ll work on recruiting a supplier for that,” said Ron Kitchens, president and CEO of Southwest Michigan First.

Existing companies can do things as simple as buying local, cooperatively pursuing opportunities and looking for ways they can bid together on larger contracts. The best thing a company can do to help this region develop into a major life sciences hub is to grow, Kitchens said.

The two regional economic development organizations recently banded together to leverage the life sciences assets of both metro Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. They believe the region already has significant momentum as a developing life sciences center, and they want to ramp it up. The assets in greater Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo are so complementary and in such close proximity, Kitchens said, that it makes tremendous sense to combine efforts. 

“By packaging what we collectively offer, we can truly compete with the better known markets for those larger investments and become a real player in this market,” explained Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place.

Two other West Michigan economic development organizations, Battle Creek Unlimited and Lakeshore Advantage, are not involved in the partnership because neither of them are marketing their areas to life sciences companies. But since Battle Creek, Holland, Zeeland and Muskegon are part of West Michigan’s seven-county region, they, too, will be represented in the life sciences build-up effort.

Successful life sciences regions across the country tend to be fairly large geographically, Klohs said. In those regions, economic development organizations and policy makers leveraged their combined resources to accelerate the build-up of their regional life sciences centers. Klohs and Kitchens began discussing the feasibility of a partnership about a year ago. In fact, the two organizations began jointly marketing themselves at the BIO International Convention 2007 in Boston last May, when they shared a booth under the banner of West Michigan and promoted the entire region.

The two organizations decided that if they laid out a roadmap for the long haul and leveraged their collective resources, the region could get down that road faster. Seven months ago, The Right Place and Southwest Michigan First commissioned Taimerica Management Co. President Ed Bee to evaluate West Michigan’s opportunities in the life sciences and make recommendations on policies and programs that would strengthen the region’s competitive position in the global life sciences market. His study incorporated national data with interviews conducted with research entities and life sciences and medical device companies in Kalamazoo and throughout West Michigan. The study will serve as a springboard to action.

Bee’s study concludes that West Michigan faces significant hurdles. In drugs and biotech, the region needs to double its portfolio of intellectual property to remain “globally relevant,” which would require doubling both basic and applied research activities.

Regional advantages include the Van Andel Institute because it offers an intellectual property resource that “eventually should match the Mayo Institute or Cleveland Clinic.” The MSU College of Human Medicine will further advance West Michigan’s infrastructure for life sciences development, particularly at the levels of basic and applied research.

Also on the plus side, West Michigan has financial resources in the form of early stage venture capital firms and has ample incubator and wet lab space to accommodate life sciences start-ups. One of the distinct advantages of this region, too, is its strong cadre of institutions that can perform contract research from drug discovery through FDA approval, the report notes.

“Few other regions, outside of Boston or New Jersey, can offer the same depth and breath of contract research,” according to the analysis. “This infrastructure offers drug start-ups an opportunity to deliver a product through clinical trials at a lower overall cost than in other regions of the country.”

In terms of drug manufacturing, West Michigan’s most significant competitive advantage is its existing base of pharmaceutical production locations. Additionally, Michigan has the world’s most advanced manufacturing infrastructure, and it is home to nearly every kind of supplier. The state’s base of suppliers is a major asset for attracting and developing medical device companies to the region, the study pointed out.

However, the region lacks several key infrastructures for life sciences development: a biotech and computer science talent base; second stage venture capital; initial public offerings; seasoned entrepreneurs with experience in life sciences start-ups; network connections to major medical device centers; and connections with national scientific advisory boards, according to the report.

As Kitchens sees it, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, and the region’s strengths are far stronger than its weaknesses are detrimental. The region has seen more than $1 billion in recent life sciences investment and is home to more than 200 life sciences companies, and that’s a good start, he said.

“We’re really talking about building upon the platform that those companies have already created,” Kitchens said. “If we only had a dozen companies, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, because there really wouldn’t be any way for us to achieve greatness in life sciences. So it’s critical that we already have this strong nucleus.” 

Klohs said the next step is to determine where to attack first. The overall marketing effort will continue — that’s a given, she said. Klohs is going to Germany to market the West Michigan region to a commercialization center there.

Also, on Sept. 27, The Right Place will host members of a life sciences region in Europe to see how it and Southwest Michigan First might collaborate with them.

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