From the fifth floor of the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences, there's a commanding view down Michigan Street -- a view of Grand Rapids' major health institutions in an area that has come to be known as "Health Hill."


When Matt Dugener looks out over that area, he sees a future hub of biotech research and development -- a future that seems closer all the time.


Dugener is the executive director of the West Michigan Science and Technology Initiative, which opened in January 2004. The Initiative was created as one of the SmartZones designated by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. in 2001 as part of an effort to promote and attract high technology business development in the state. Grand Valley was the only university in the state to be granted two SmartZones -- one in Grand Rapids and one in Muskegon.

Since the Initiative opened for business, a series of exciting new projects have partnered with it.

In October, the state of Michigan awarded the Van Andel Institute a three-year appropriation of $1.5 million per year to establish an FDA-approved Good Manufacturing Practice facility to be housed at the Initiative. This new facility will support the development of new drugs to treat cancer and other diseases for delivery to the marketplace. Grand Valley was also awarded a $462,000 grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to house the project.

Matt Dugener

Grand Valley President Mark A. Murray heralded the GMP lab as a positive development for the biotech industry in Grand Rapids.

"This GMP facility is absolutely necessary to foster the development of the life sciences in Grand Rapids. We are pleased that Grand Valley and the Van Andel Institute have been able to work collaboratively to secure such an important regional asset," Murray said. "It also illustrates Grand Valley's continued commitment to growing the life science industry in Grand Rapids."

Van Andel Institute Chairman and CEO David Van Andel echoed those sentiments.

"The new facility will provide a critical component to our region's collective efforts to turn what we discover in the laboratory into treatments that will benefit patients," Van Andel said. "We will now be able to produce new, high quality pharmaceutical and biological therapies in sufficient quantity and at a reasonable cost for use in clinical trials. Through this partnership, VAI will play an expanded role in bringing new drugs to the marketplace."

That collaboration is one of the hallmarks of the Initiative. The development of commercial biotech products requires several steps before FDA approval. According to Dugener, those steps include basic research, applied research, animal trials and human clinical trials. Between Grand Valley, the Van Andel Institute, Spectrum Health, St. Mary's Mercy Medical Center and Mary Free Bed, those elements are increasingly available within a several block radius of the Initiative's base in the Center for Health Sciences.

"Grand Rapids is starting to get the reputation as someplace to come to get that done," Dugener said.

Increasingly, he added, those institutions are collaborating with a common goal in mind.

"Instead of competing with each other on the Hill, we realized that we're stronger if we work together and compete with the rest of the world," Dugener said.

"Instead of competing with each other on the Hill, we realized that we're stronger if we work together and compete with the rest of the world."

-- Matt Dugener

Those collaborative efforts are being aided by some cutting-edge technology. Last fall, the city of Grand Rapids approved $90,000 to allow for an Internet2 connection between the Van Andel Institute, Spectrum Health, and Grand Valley's Center for Health Sciences.

Grand Valley is the access point for Internet2, the next generation of the Internet dedicated to scientific and research purposes. Connecting to the Van Andel Institute and Spectrum will allow all of the entities to exchange massive quantities of data quickly and electronically.

"Internet2 will provide an electronic linkage with the necessary speed, volume and bandwidth for local researchers to compete, collaborate, and learn on a global scale," said Dugener. Internet2 is a consortium led by more than 200 universities working in partnership with industry and government to develop and deploy advanced network applications and technologies, accelerating the creation of tomorrow's Internet.

Research has already begun in the Initiative's Product Development Center. The facility's first client was Sordal Inc., a NASA licensee company that focuses on the research and development of high-tech materials for the military, with an eye toward expanding into the life sciences -- as well as automotive, office furniture, specialty insulation, aircraft, aerospace and clothing markets.

In June, Sordal and Grand Valley were awarded a $100,000 federal grant to develop a foam that will protect missile-tracking satellites from overheating. The grant focuses on using Sordal's lightweight high temperature SOLREX insulating foam to provide thermal insulation for satellites which detect and track ballistic missiles. These satellites contain systems that must operate at cryogenic temperatures. SOLREX will be specifically developed to protect these systems from direct solar heating, solar energy reflected from the earth's surface and internal heating, while overcoming the shortcomings of current insulating blankets.

Robert Smart, associate professor of chemistry at Grand Valley, has been working with Sordal while on sabbatical for the past year to further develop and improve the performance of Sordal's high temperature foams and composites. Another of Sordal's products, ARMAREX composite, is a non-flammable material which is 10 times stronger than steel on a weight basis. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory is working with Sordal to develop composite tanks constructed from ARMAREX composite for the Airborne Laser program.

Avalon Laboratories, a prominent medical device company from Southern California, relocated to the Initiative's Product Development Center in 2004. The company is conducting several research and development projects with the strong potential for future manufacturing spin-offs.

"We were looking for a state-of-the-art facility that would serve as the center for our cardiac products research and development group. The Product Development Center fit our needs perfectly. The proximity to our customer base, other biomedical research groups, the large pool of local talented people and a very favorable business climate made the Grand Rapids area the best choice for us," said Avalon CEO Robert Foster.

Foster has more than 20 years of experience in national life sciences industry leadership. In 1995, Avalon Labs became the world's largest manufacturers of heart cannulae, which are specially designed tubes used in cardiac patients, providing nearly three-quarters of all cannulae used in the world. Foster is also president and co-founder of Vascular BioSciences of San Diego, the maker of the world's only arterial biopsy catheter.

Also using the Initiative's research space is a firm called SoyUltima, whose chief researcher, Dr. Leslie Nsofor of Michigan State University, developed a patented method for harnessing parts of the soybean that were previously unused.

"SoyUltima has a patented soybean processing system that allows those currently unused -- but nutritionally valuable -- portions of the bean to be used in the development of soy-based nutritional products and pharmaceuticals," said Dugener.

Another client of the Initiative is Patmos, an Ann Arbor-founded company that uses the Initiative's connections to local industry and other resources to market its software. Patmos researcher Dr. Mark Palmer has developed a complex computer model of human muscle, which he's also applied to manufacturing contexts. This complex algorithm will allow companies to cut down on the trial-and-error process traditionally associated with developing a whole range of consumer products.

"The program is very innovative," Dugener said. "It allows the research and development process to be viewed in both micro and global contexts simultaneously."

Page last modified March 17, 2014