MSU's Bio-Economy Plan Holds Promise

January 9, 2008
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HOLLAND — For the promise of what it could mean to Michigan’s economy, Michigan State University’s soon-to-be created bio-economy research, development and commercialization center has earned a place among the Top 10 Newsmakers of the Year.

The bio-economy center is expected to help reinvigorate the state’s economic base with the development of new bio-economic industries. MSU intends to build the center in a donated Pfizer facility at 188 Howard Ave. in Holland. The 138,000-square-foot, $50 million facility boasts 37,000 liters of chemical reactor capacity with centralized automatic controls supported by modern laboratories for approximately 100 researchers, which is the number of researchers that MSU plans to hire over time. MSU officials indicated that they’d like to begin staffing the center in the first quarter of this year.

Work at the center will focus on bio-fuel research, bio-materials or bio-chemicals, and MSU anticipates it will play a lead role in the development of bio-economic industries in Michigan.

Essentially, the center will perform the kind of research that can help move the state’s economy from petroleum-based products towards more renewable, plant-based products, said Randy Thelen, president of Lakeshore Advantage. A bio-economy, he said, will help reinvigorate the state’s economic base by connecting strengths in agriculture, forestry and natural resources with the state’s traditional know-how in the manufacturing and industrial sectors.

The center will include a bio-economy business incubator to support the start-up of new companies in the bio-economy sector. Private companies, too, would be able to access the center’s advanced equipment and research findings, according to the university.

In November, MSU’s Trustee Finance Committee recommended that the Board of Trustees give the administration the authority to accept the gift and execute a donation agreement. In edition to the gift of real estate, Pfizer offered to prepare the property for MSU and separate utilities at its own expense.

The facility has undergone an environmental and HVAC review by Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber. The consultants said the environmental testing and review to date suggest that only remedial steps are necessary.

J. Ian Gray, MSU vice president for research and graduate studies, said that, to his knowledge, nobody has done an analysis of what economic impact the bioresearch and commercialization center may have on the Holland community. But he sees the center as another opportunity for MSU to have an impact on the entire state.

“Through the intellectual property that we hope will be developed and commercialized, MSU will get royalties back, so there will be some return from an expanded program in bio-economy activity,” Gray said. “The impact for Holland would be the location of some of these small spin-off companies into the Holland area.”

MSU President Lou Anna Simon predicted that corporate partners and world-class researchers, including MSU faculty members, will find that collaboration with MSU’s bioresearch and commercialization center permits convenient scale-up of their cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel, bioplastics and specialty chemical technologies.

“In addition, MSU intends to host researchers from nearby institutions, such as Hope College, and from private sector start-up companies at the site,” Simon said. 

The MSU-Pfizer agreement, expected to be finalized soon, will include a combination of federal research grants, private sector corporate research contracts and corporate partnerships. As of Labor Day, the Holland Zeeland Community Foundation had received signed pledges totaling $4.8 million against a $5 million endowment for the center and additional donations were being discussed. Other funds include a $3.4 million grant from the 21st Century Jobs Fund, and $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Workforce Innovation for Regional Economic Development program.

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