Sputnik Launched Cook's Career

November 28, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — Rich Cook has a precise, academic explanation of why he came out of retirement to work as the director of the Venture Center at the West Michigan Science & Technology Initiative.

"I flunked retirement," he said.

Cook was the CEO of X-Rite Inc. when he retired four years ago after spending more than 30 years working at West Michigan-based, technology-driven global companies. He was active in retirement, working 20 hours a week as a community volunteer, refurbishing donated computers that would then be distributed to people in the Holland area who could not afford new computers.

But after four years of retirement, Cook said, he was bored. So he took a job at the West Michigan Science & Technology Initiative last spring and is back at work full time.

WMSTI bills itself as the place "where science gets down to business." The Venture Center is in the Grand Valley State University Cook DeVos Center for Health Sciences on the “Medical Mile” in Grand Rapids. It provides entrepreneurs and small companies access to laboratory facilities and equipment where they can develop new ideas in science and technology and prepare them for the marketplace.

"We're all about commercialization in the life sciences and health sciences," said Cook.

WMSTI was formed in 2003 as a partnership between The Right Place Inc., Van Andel Research Institute, Grand Valley State University, the city of Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Community College. The partnership later expanded to include Spectrum Health, Saint Mary's Health Care, Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital and the Grand Angels. Its mission is to help grow and diversify the West Michigan economy by supporting innovation and the commercialization of science and technology.

Cook has worked in a variety of industrial markets, and has taught at Hope College and Grand Valley State University.

“WMSTI is now better equipped to serve our clients and tenants with Rich on board as Venture Center director. He has international experience with joint ventures and acquisitions, and U.S. experience in seed venture capital,” said Linda Chamberlain, interim executive director of WMSTI when Cook was hired last spring.

The Venture Center is an "incubator," equipped with "high-end wet labs, the only ones in the region that are available for leasing," said Cook. Those include tissue culture laboratories, a cold room, a warm room, a sterilization area, a preparation room, a radio-isotope room, a microscopy suite, a specialized instrumentation room, and a cell and molecular biology laboratory. State-of-the-art meeting facilities are also available.

According to Cook, there are about 1,400 incubators in the U.S., about a quarter of them located at universities. The WMSTI Venture Center has about 6,500 square feet of wet labs and 5,000 square feet of space housing $2 million worth of research equipment — about 100 pieces — that is shared by the tenants. Equipment ranges from centrifuges, specialized freezers and refrigerators, to thermal ovens, shakers, spectroscopes, precise scales and many other esoteric devices.

Cook said the tenants using the Venture Center labs save hundreds of thousands of dollars they would otherwise have to invest in equipment.

WMSTI has more than 100 clients and six current tenants (there will be seven in January). The six tenants renting space in the Venture Center incubator are Avalon Laboratories, Barrier Technology, the Center for Molecular Medicine, EDF Ventures, Kent Intermediate School District and ClinXus.

According to Cook, Avalon is the world's leading supplier of cardiopulmonary vascular cannulae — flexible, transparent tubes used to carry the blood in open heart surgery — as well as the devices used to connect the cannulae to the patient.

EDF Ventures is a venture capital firm focused on early-stage investments in health care and information technologies. With offices in Ann Arbor and San Diego, the firm focuses its investments on companies in the Midwest and Southern California.

One of the newest tenants is the Center for Molecular Medicine, a new joint venture by Van Andel Institute and Spectrum Health to research diseases such as cancer, heart disease and mental illness at the DNA, RNA and protein levels.

Kent Intermediate School District uses its space in the Venture Center to hold classes for high school honors students who are exploring careers in the health sciences.

The six tenants employ a number of GVSU graduates and also undergraduate student interns, according to Cook. GVSU researchers also use the Venture Center, as do faculty from GRCC.

Local firms that offer seminars and business advice to WMSTI clients include Independent Bank, Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson (marketing and public relations), Price, Heneveld, Cooper, DeWitt & Litton (intellectual property law), and Warner Norcross & Judd (FDA regulations and general legal issues).

One of Cook's key roles is to work with client companies on their business plans. He is a good fit for that role, because he was in executive management at X-Rite, Cascade Engineering and Donnelly Corp. — and he also has a science background. Cook earned a Bachelor of Science in physics, cum laude, from the University of Michigan in 1967, and then worked as the physics laboratory director at Hope College.

"I wanted to be a physicist because of Sputnik," said Cook. When the Soviet Union successfully launched the satellite Sputnik I in 1957, Cook was 12 years old and good at math and science. He and many other Americans realized that Sputnik heralded the dawn of the Space Age.

In 1969, Cook went to work in the Aerospace Division of Donnelly Corp. Not long after that, a glass instrument cover broke on the moon, and Cook's career took an interesting turn. The glass cover, which had been supplied by Donnelly, was on equipment on board one of the Apollo missions. Cook was given the assignment to research the cause of the glass failure, which ultimately brought him into contact with people in many departments throughout the Donnelly organization. The cause of the product failure was an incorrect specification, not a fault of the Donnelly Corp., Cook was quick to point out.

Because of his new experience throughout the corporation, Cook realized he wanted to do more in the business world than just physics research. Eventually he got a Master of Management degree from Aquinas College and became vice president of corporate technology at Donnelly. He took a job as executive vice president at Cascade Engineering in 1992, and was president/COO by 1994. He became president/COO at X-Rite in 1998 and then served as its CEO for three years.

"I love seeing product come down the line," said Cook, "and I love small business start-ups."

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