VAI Outlines Expansion Plans

May 20, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Van Andel Institute is moving ahead with the promised Phase II expansion of its medical research and education facility on Michigan Street Hill.

The VAI will invest $120 million to $150 million in both private funds and bonds to construct an additional 280,000 square feet on the west side of the facility, fronting

North Division Avenue
. The east side of the existing building has 186,000 square feet of space.

Future expansion was built into the original plan for the facility.

“The vision was always bigger and it’s getting bigger all the time,” said VAI Chairman and CEO David Van Andel. “Improving human health has been our institutional promise from the day we opened our doors, and it continues to this day.”

He said ground will be broken on Phase II in spring 2006 and construction will take about two and a half years to complete.

Build-out of the facility’s east side, he joked, “will silence the critics who said we built the building backwards.”

Presently, the Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) has 17 laboratories and 189 full-time employees, including 55 scientists, 70 research support staff and 64 administrative staff members. With the expansion, the VAI will more than double the number of labs and create some 400 new labs over time.

“With more labs and with a larger research team, we will advance new initiatives in basic and translational research,” Van Andel said. “We’ll move more aggressively into research related to Alzheimer’s; we announced recently a move into Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders. We’ll also move more aggressively into some areas of cancer research, such as multiple melanoma.”

The VAI’s annual operating budget is currently $30 million. Van Andel said when the facility is fully built out, fully staffed and operating at capacity, the budget will grow to more than $100 million a year. The institute is funded by a combination of its endowment, research grants and private philanthropy.

Van Andel also announced that the VAI, which includes both VARI and the Van Andel Education Institute (VAEI), is going to burrow deeper into West Michigan’s educational community.

The VAEI, which has been in the development stage since 2002, was recently granted a charter from the state of Michigan to award M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in molecular and cellular biology, Van Andel noted. Beginning September 2006, up to 25 students will be enrolled in the four- to five-year Ph.D. program. Phase II will house the new graduate school.

Van Andel Research Institute principal investigators will serve as primary faculty. They will be joined by a small group of adjunct professors from institute postdoctoral research fellows, area colleges and universities and other graduate trained professionals.

He said the VAI is pleased to have the support of many of the college and university presidents in the area “who all agree” the program is going to benefit science education and research efforts in West Michigan.

“The opportunities for partnership are endless. As an independent institution, we’re almost mandated that we need to partner in order to be effective,” Van Andel remarked. “But the benefits of growth are never singular, and those partnering activities have enabled us to expand our operations and move our programs in ways we never imagined.

“As the institute grows, so will industry in West Michigan. For instance, we expect that the expanded base in research capabilities will greatly enhance our community’s opportunity to develop a new medical school with a strong emphasis on research,” he said, referring to the Michigan State University medical school discussions that are underway.

The expansion also opens up more opportunities for VARI to partner with area health-care institutions to apply the knowledge it has gained through molecular research to diagnoses, therapies and new procedures that directly impact people in West Michigan, he said.

Grand Valley State University President Mark Murray said GVSU has some difficulty predicting where the opportunities for collaborations will come from, but they just keep coming.

“We keep finding new ways to partner across the health sector, the educational sector and research sector, and we have great confidence that the synergies for partnerships will continue,” he said. Murray said GVSU has a strong cell molecular biology program, so the VAEI’s doctorate program provides those students a great opportunity.

Van Andel said opportunities for commercialization are just beginning to surface in the West Michigan area.

“The opportunity to commercialize and create new industries is going to be a tremendous thing that’s going to happen here in West Michigan and in Michigan as a whole.”

Private investor and businessman Michael Jandernoa, former chairman of the board at Perrigo Co., said the region has already seen how Michigan’s 5-year-old Life Sciences Corridor has changed the attitudes and altered the perceptions of people both nationally and internationally about life sciences in Michigan.

“We have the research expertise at the Van Andel Institute leveraged with the University of Michigan, Michigan State, Wayne State and now Western Michigan University, and it creates opportunities for commercial partners and research organizations that are interested in partnering and taking that opportunity from the research step into the commercialization phase,” Jandernoa said.

“There’s venture capital money that’s now flowing into the state of Michigan and venture capital funds that now exist in the state of Michigan as a direct spin-off and benefit of the Van Andel Institute.”

Jandernoa is certain Phase II of the VAI will bring more capital to West Michigan and attract more interest in using VAI research ideas and influence for commercialization efforts.    

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