Highly Educated Work Force
Key To Economic Investment

July 15, 2007
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As the state of Michigan continues its quest to contend with ongoing fiscal challenges and thrive in the new economy, we need look only as far as some popular advertising slogans for cues on the direction to take. The U.S. Air Force directive to “Aim High” and Ford’s “Bold Moves” fire off clear messages about where we need to set the bar and what it’s going to take to reach it.

We are aiming at an economy driven by and dependent upon knowledge jobs and high educational attainment of its work force. Our economic future is largely dependent upon our ability to educate our work force. Could there be a correlation between an unemployment rate among the worst in the nation and the fact that only 25 percent of Michigan’s population believes a college education is essential to getting ahead in life? We need to convince everyone in Michigan that education is critical to success. Lansing’s short-term and short-sited cuts in higher ed funding are not a step in the right direction. Strong and sustained public and private investments in education are vital to Michigan’s future if we want to grow knowledge industries and draw upon a pool of talent from our own state.

We are also aiming at a global economy. Competitors, consumers and operations may be located overseas. Rather than criticizing West Michigan businesses whose international operations have helped local operations remain strong, we should learn from them.  

The new economy is characterized by fast-growing “gazelle” companies, new business start-ups and technology-producing and technology-dependent industries. It is an environment rich with research scientists and engineers. Our community needs to sustain the kinds of investments that make this an attractive place for new businesses and highly educated workers — investments in arts and cultural institutions, schools, infrastructure and a vibrant urban center.

The new economy is one in which national and international research and commercialization partnerships are critical to success, and attraction of venture capital is vital to growth. Commercial, scientific and financial partners will invest in us only if we invest in ourselves and prove that we will sustain these investments. We’re aiming for an economy where our industry investment in R&D is strong, where local seed and venture capital is plentiful, commercialization of products is prolific, and the number of patents issued is steadily growing.

That’s aiming high, and it will take bold moves to reach these goals.

We have witnessed some bold moves in West Michigan as organizations such as the Van Andel Institute, Spectrum Health, Saint Mary’s Health Care, Grand Valley State University and others have made significant investments in the health sciences and are beginning to transform our community from one heavily dependent upon traditional manufacturing to a region also known as a center of excellence in biomedical research and health care.

Some unique products and partnerships have sprung from these initial investments.  For instance, scientists at VAI have developed the XB Bioinformatics System, a highly advanced database designed on the premise that cancers have unique genetic characteristics. Using XB, researchers and physicians can create a molecular profile of a person’s tumor and integrate that information with the individual’s genetic profile, health history and other relevant information. They then compare that profile to a database of drugs, searching for the therapy most likely to be effective on the genes involved in the disease.

XB puts us at the forefront of molecular medicine and is now helping researchers all over the country — including those at Schering Plough, the University of California San Francisco, Spectrum Health and NYU Medical School — extend and translate research findings into clinical practice. XB has already generated more than $1 million in service or license fees for VAI, dollars that we can use to fund additional research, creating an exponential impact on human health and on our local economy. 

XB is also being used by Van Andel Research Institute scientists, clinicians at Spectrum Health and other area partners through our new Center for Molecular Medicine. Launched this past March, the CMM is the first of its kind in West Michigan. In addition to XB, the lab employs highly sophisticated tests and tools that can predict onset, progression and therapeutic response of various diseases.

This collaboration demonstrates the power of what we have been building in West Michigan. But it will take all of us together moving boldly in the right direction to complete the transformation. Several area companies such as Cascade Engineering, Autocam and Tillman Industries are already on board. They’ve joined a growing contingent of medical equipment manufacturers who bring West Michigan’s tradition of manufacturing excellence to bear as they cultivate the commercial side of the health sciences industry.  

We have tremendous innovation capacity in West Michigan. As other established and agile manufacturers, including automotive suppliers, metal fabricators and plastics injection and molding companies, look for ways to grow and innovate, I encourage them to be open to new products and ideas that serve the health science industry. Prosthetics, surgical instruments and other medical devices are real possibilities in this region. And while this is a complex industry, it’s possible to hire or partner with people who understand it.

The bottom line is, if we want to grow and sustain a strong and diverse industry base, many more of us need to get on board, seed diversification and invest in R&D. We’ve come too far to stop now. A healthy and new West Michigan economy will be a diverse economy, a knowledge economy, and an economy driven by sustained private investment by the broadest possible spectrum of individuals and organizations. Together, let’s aim high and take bold action to get there.

David Van Andel is chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute.

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