When the University of Minnesota proposed building the Biomedical Discovery District, its leaders intended to facilitate serendipitous interactions between scientists that could lead to new bioscience ideas, research, and innovation. That objective moved from theory to practice just a month after occupants settled into the district’s Medical Biosciences Building late last year.
Running into each other in a hallway this winter, scientists in immunology and neurobiology struck up a casual conversation about their work. Soon they discovered some connections between their separate research on ataxia, a degenerative nervous system disease. In short order, they devised some experiments that will study the immune system’s response during the development of the condition.
“They realized they could put their two areas of expertise together and potentially learn something new and exciting,” says Matt Mescher, director of the Center for Immunology. “Neither one probably would have thought of it on their own.”
Findings from new experiments like those on ataxia could have a powerful impact on Minnesota’s bioscience industry. It would happen like this: The experiments’ results might attract grants to fund clinical trials on new diagnostic tools or therapies. Discoveries from the trials could be developed into treatments or medical devices, which could be licensed or spun off into new companies. Ultimately, those companies would generate royalty income for the university while creating jobs and strengthening the state’s bioscience prowess.
Minnesota has a strong history of strength in the biosciences. It's where medical breakthroughs like the world’s first simultaneous kidney and pancreas transplant took place, and it's home to medical device giants like Medtronic, Inc., and St. Jude Medical, Inc. Yet there is growing concern that other states are doing more to support their biosciences industries and that these burgeoning sectors could be siphoning off talent, capital, and businesses from Minnesota.
To prevent that from happening, the university convinced the Minnesota Legislature that it could help power the state’s bioscience industry with innovation. The plan included clustering scientists from multiple but intersecting disciplines in state-of-the-art research buildings. In 2008, the legislature and Governor Tim Pawlenty approved $292 million in bonding to develop the U’s Biomedical Discovery District on the eastern end of campus, directly across from the new Gopher football stadium.
When one more new building and an expansion of an existing one are completed in 2014, the district’s facilities will together total 700,000 square feet of flexible research space that will be occupied by more than 1,000 faculty and staff seeking cures, treatments, and preventions.
“This is all about the future of bioscience in Minnesota,” explains Frank Cerra, dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School and the U's senior vice president for health sciences. “The engine that drives that is the science that goes on at the university and, to an extent, the Mayo Clinic. The new innovation and creativity eventually ends up in new ways to prevent disease, new pills and products, and new jobs and industries. It’s all here, but if we don’t make the investment in this state, we’ll lose it to another state and become flyover country.”
Eventually, the Biomedical Discovery District will house five buildings: the existing Lions Research Building for the study of hearing, vision, and neuroscience; the 2005 McGuire Translational Research Facility for stem cell, infectious disease, and pharmacy research; the newly completed Medical Biosciences Building for neuroscience and immunology; an expanded Center for Magnetic Resonance Research; and a facility for cancer and cardiology research.
Those buildings are designed to foster collaboration and interaction between scientists from the graduate and post-doctoral level up to top-ranking professors.
The U is marshalling its resources into five key areas where it sees the most potential for breakthrough innovation: cardiovascular health, cancer, diabetes and endocrine disorders, infectious disease and immunology, and neuroscience—especially brain illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease, psychiatric diseases, and muscle disorders, Cerra says.
Research in these areas will be powered by the expanded Center for Magnetic Resonance Research (CMRR), which houses some of the world’s most powerful tools for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). For years, the center has pushed the boundaries of magnetic resonance technology, which captures detailed images from inside the human body. Hospitals and clinics now use MRI machines with 1.5 and 3 Tesla magnets; the center developed the world’s highest-field magnets for human use at 7 and 9.4 Tesla—a daring and complicated feat of physics and engineering, says center Director Kamil Ugurbil, a radiology professor.
The higher-level magnets allow scientists to see in minute detail the insides of people’s brains, hearts, muscles, and other body parts and to measure chemical components inside of them. The machines are now being used to study anatomical differences in the brains of people with schizophrenia—differences that don’t show up on images from less powerful machines.
The expansion of the CMRR will fund three additional high-powered MRI machines, including a 10.5 Tesla machine for human use that's the first of its kind in the world.
Experiments done on those machines are often groundbreaking and have real-world applications. Take the breast cancer work of radiology professor Michael Garwood, associate director of the CMRR. Teaming with the university’s cancer center on a clinical trial, Garwood is using magnetic resonance technology to determine noninvasively and immediately whether a chemotherapy drug is working. If the clinical trial is successful, oncologists will eventually be able to switch therapy mid-treatment; they now have to wait through an entire round of chemo to learn through a biopsy or surgical procedure whether a particular treatment worked.
The CMRR’s magnetic resonance technology has already generated $60 million in research grants, says Ugurbil.
To Market, to Market
Investments like the $292 million put toward the Biomedical Discovery District just might power Minnesota’s bioscience industry for decades to come. But another critical element is taking research innovations to market in partnership with business veterans and investors.
To that end, the university has completely made over the way it executes technology transfer—the practice of commercializing new devices, preventions, medications, and treatments.
A key weapon in this process is the new Clinical and Translational Science Institute, which helps pave the way for researchers to launch and conduct clinical trials. It offers resources for moving findings from the bench to the bedside, including research facilities, biostatistics consultation, and regulatory support. Thanks to the institute, the U already has boosted its clinical trials from roughly 150 to more than 200, with expectations to hit 500 in the next two years, says Cerra.
In 2005, the U hired Tim Mulcahy from the University of Wisconsin–Madison to serve as its vice president for research. Under his guidance, the U’s Office for Technology Commercialization (OTC) gained the leadership of Jay Schrankler, a seasoned Honeywell executive, who replaced the academic-heavy staff with experienced businesspeople. In addition, the OTC’s new Venture Center teams with entrepreneurs and other business specialists who offer guidance and support to help nurture and spin out potential start-ups. The U has spun out six businesses within the past several years, and revenue from licensing new technology jumped 11 percent in the most recent fiscal year, reports Schrankler.
The university is getting better at technology transfer thanks to its new commercialization structure and staff. The OTC has four business units—life science, engineering and physical science, software and digital systems, and agriculture and horticulture. Specialists in those units, who also have experience with technology strategy and marketing, evaluate potential patents and start-ups.
Last year, Schrankler’s team evaluated nearly 250 invention disclosures and filed patents on 65 of the most promising discoveries. “If we have more patent applications, that should lead to more business opportunities,” he says. “We have the momentum now.”
The university is doing its part to help advance Minnesota's bioscience industry; now it’s time for the state to do its part, asserts Peter T. Bianco, director of life science business development at Minneapolis law firm Nilan Johnson Lewis, P.A., and former CEO of nonprofit biotech research center University Enterprise Laboratories, Inc.
“There are four elements necessary to create new companies and economic development: science, talent, capital, and location,” Bianco notes. “In my world, the Biomedical Discovery District represents the first major step forward in taking discoveries at the University of Minnesota and converting them into jobs.”
He says that another necessary component to propelling Minnesota's biosciences industry is an angel investor tax credit, which passed through the legislature earlier this year and was signed into law on April 1. At least 20 states offer a similar incentive to investors. It has helped kindle the growth of nascent biomedical industries in Ohio, Wisconsin, and several other states, and Bianco hopes that it might prevent future Minnesota-based biomedical start-ups from following in the footsteps of two that have moved to Hudson, Wisconsin, in recent years: Rapid Diagnostek and VitalMedix, Inc.
In contrast to those departures are recent spin-offs from the U like Orasi Medical, which builds on the research of neuroscience professor Apostolos Georgopolous to develop diagnostic tools for Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis. The St. Louis Park-based company recently attracted $3.5 million in second-round funding, a remarkable achievement in this economy, notes Schrankler. Another is Eden Prairie-based Miromatrix, a new start-up working to grow transplant organs in the lab, based on the findings of renowned cardiac researcher Doris Taylor.
The keys to fueling the growth of Minnesota’s bioscience industry are the state and the U’s ability to “tap the energy and knowledge of the faculty—to recruit them, retain them, and direct their energy to doing what only they can do: make discoveries that become new products and new industry,” says Cerra. “That’s what they can do, and there is no one who can do it better.