Focus shift from capital investment to investing in intellectual capital

October 5, 2009
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As I looked out over downtown Grand Rapids from a top floor window of Van Andel Institute recently, I noticed that something was conspicuously absent.

One by one, the cranes that have dotted the skyline of the Medical Mile for the greater part of this decade are being disassembled and shipped off to other projects, leaving behind a brand new, state-of-the-art research and clinical life sciences infrastructure spurred by more than a billion dollars in philanthropic giving and economic investment.

The buildings stand as a testament to our community’s ability to unite and work together. Now is the time to harness that ability to another challenge: to fill those buildings with the best and brightest minds and most capable individuals who will enable West Michigan to take its place as a leader among emerging life sciences sectors. Every corner of our community can help as we prepare to fill 500 new positions at Van Andel Institute and many other jobs created by the construction throughout the region.

The challenges of building a life sciences corridor from scratch compelled us early on to collaborate. In the early days, the fledgling research and clinical entities atop Michigan Hill and throughout the rest of the Medical Mile didn’t have the safety net of a university with a long track record of federal grant funding. That has made all of us good from the get-go at collaborating with one another and at reaching out to the broader scientific community to make the important connections by which cutting-edge research becomes a life-saving treatment.

Becoming good and collaborative by necessity has helped to advance our science and stabilize our bottom lines, and has enabled us to even begin to look toward expansion and growth. We have proven the early naysayers wrong by getting things off the ground and now face the prospect of creating something of lasting worth and importance, something to point the way toward the economic, technical, social and educational realities of a new century.

However, there is a lot of competition on the horizon, and it is not enough to dismantle the cranes and whisper to ourselves that “If you build it, they will come.” This spirit of collaboration and pursuit of excellence must continue if the region is to compete with established and emerging life science industries both in the United States and abroad.

That being said, West Michigan has a lot going for it in that competition.

As mentioned, strong and crucial relationships have been established between independent research institutes, universities and colleges, and clinical organizations, which can create partnerships critical for grant funding and large-scale clinical trials. In these endeavors, the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine will play an important role.

In addition to the excellent health care they provide, the region’s stellar hospitals also play a significant role by providing a substantial patient base, creating a greater likelihood of access to clinical trials that not only hold the promise of improved treatments, but that also aid in the development of new drugs and provide the molecular information necessary for advances in personalized medicine.

A history of manufacturing, research and development, and technological expertise also makes the region a natural for investment and start-ups in the medical device industry.

Another measure of the collective will of the community is evidenced by strong community development organizations like Grand Action, and regional marketing organizations like WMSTI and The Right Place. Top-flight community alliances like ClinXus fulfill the important purpose of bringing together a coalition of research and clinical partners to promote biomarker-based clinical trials, crucial to the development of advanced treatments.

There are also intangibles such as the region’s strong history of entrepreneurial enterprise, which makes the corridor such a promising investment opportunity for venture capitalists.

Are there challenges? Certainly. Recruiting the best and the brightest scientific and clinical minds to an unknown, and to some, an unproven region remains a challenge. We have mitigated this to some extent by reaching out to Midwesterners eager to return home and by seeking bright and capable minds from dozens of nations who have flocked here and made West Michigan a more cosmopolitan and vibrant community with their presence.

The sluggish economy also has provided a funding challenge; venture capital has become scarce, and the stops and starts in state and federal funding have provided a further challenge. If we are going to be successful we’ve got to have consistency and continuity.

Above all, we need to be welcoming to new ideas and open to innovation. The entire nation faces increased international competition in a new, more dynamic economy based on knowledge, problem-solving and advanced skills and technology.

To reshape Michigan’s future, we need to embrace new ideas, new technologies and new ways of doing business to help create a more diversified economic portfolio.

Not only will new ideas create new economic opportunities, they will also create something of even greater importance — new, advanced treatments for patients, the reason that the institutions of the Medical Mile were founded, and the reason members of the community have become personally, professionally and philanthropically involved and invested in the industry.

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