A Walk in the (Research) Park

R&D centers can offer important infrastructure and networking benefits to startups as they work toward commercialization
By Erin Voegele | April 25, 2011

Research and development parks, innovation centers and small-business incubators have long been a part of the U.S. industrial landscape. These entities generally aim to offer support and resources to companies working to develop and scale-up innovative, game-changing technologies. While many have traditionally focused in areas such as life science and biomedical innovation, a new wave of facilities is being established specifically to support the bioindustrial sector.

In addition to state-of-the-art laboratories and research infrastructure, each entity can offer prospective tenants a wide range of unique benefits, from access to investors and downstream customers, to permitting assistance and highly trained employee pools.

Each center also has its own specialized area of focus. For example, the BioResearch & Development Growth Park at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis is able to leverage a strong background in plant science research.

The BRDG Park was established as part of the original vision of the adjacent Danforth Center, according to Mark Gorski, park business development officer. The founders of the Danforth Center had a vision for an agriculturally focused plant science research park that could take advantage of some of the technologies being developed and discovered there, Gorski says. The BRDG Park essentially allows tenant companies access to core facilities at the Danforth Center, including the greenhouses, the growth chambers and the microscopy facilities. “[Tenants] pay for the use of those facilities, but at a discounted rate,” he says.

Construction on the BRDG Park began in 2008, and the grand opening took place in June 2009. “The building was designed to support plant sciences and agricultural bioresearch in terms of infrastructure,” Gorski says. “We have a building that is built with specialized infrastructure to support wet lab and dry lab research. We have the infrastructure necessary to support startups and mature companies.” This includes common equipment rooms, specialized lab suites and HVAC systems.

The center currently consists of one 110,000-square-foot building. “We have approval from the local municipality for three buildings totaling 450,000 square-feet,” Gorski says. “We have a lot of room to grow, and we are planning to grow. I’m sure that we are going to see significant growth from the biofuel and biorefining sectors as we grow the park.” Approximately 10 tenants are currently located at the facility, with a couple more expected to establish operation there this summer.

In Ontario, a former Dow Chemical research facility has been taken over by the city of Sarnia and county of Lambton and renovated to create the Bioindustrial Innovation Center. The center is located at the Sarnia Lambton Campus of the University of Western Ontario Research Park. The university has been contracted to manage it as a research park.

“We’ve gone in and renovated the building and updated [systems] to handle steam and various waste management systems,” says Murray McLaughlin, BIC’s executive director.

Renovations were completed last fall and the grand opening was celebrated in October. The center features both lab space and pilot facilities. The pilot side can handle about three clients at a time, McLaughlin says, noting that six laboratory spaces are also available. The expectation is that bioindustrial companies will cycle through the center in six- to 18-month timeframes to complete pilot-scale work, he adds.

In contrast to the focus on plant science at BRDG Park, McLaughlin says BIC is focused primarily on supporting biochemical companies. There are significant benefits associated with positioning a research project at a location that already has basic infrastructure in place, he says. “All our tenants need to do is install their pilot equipment and plug it in,” McLaughlin says. “They will save on their costs because we already have the ability to handle air flow, steam and the service side of it.”

The labs are also outfitted with air control systems, fume hoods, benches, and other standard features. “The companies need to put their own equipment into those labs,” McLaughlin says, explaining that it would be impossible for BIC to anticipate the unique needs of each company.

Another small-business incubator recently established in Michigan is also located in a repurposed industrial facility. Michigan State University’s Bioeconomy Institute is housed in a 138,000-square-foot building donated by Pfizer. The location features laboratories, an auditorium and a large pilot plant, says Paul Hunt, the institute’s senior associate vice president of research and graduate studies. “It’s well-equipped for chemical research of all sorts,” he says. “The plant contains approximately 30 reactors ranging from 40 to 4,000 liters…It also contains centrifuges, driers, filters, condensers and other chemical apparatus.”

The Bioeconomy Institute opened in March 2009 and focuses on three aspects of the bioeconomy: specialty chemicals, biomaterials and biofuels. The institute also houses a small-business incubator that is run under contract for MSU by Lakeshore Advantage. “I think that the Bioeconomy Institute has been designed to provide startups with simultaneous access to academic experts on the science and engineering side, as well as plant facilities and production experts,” Hunt says, noting that through a combination of scientific and production resources and business expertise, the institute is trying to cover all the bases for its tenants.

Beyond Infrastructure

While the nuts and bolts offered by a research and development center in terms of infrastructure and equipment are vital, other benefits may ultimately prove more important to startups.

In addition to facilities it offers to tenants, the BRDG Park can offer invaluable finance networking opportunities. “We really make it our business here at the BRDG Park to work closely with the investment community,” Gorski says. “One of the most important things that startups need is capital, financial resources.” BRDG Park has a network of angel investors, venture capital firms, private equity firms, and corporate investors it works with on an ongoing basis, he says.

BIC can offer its tenants financial assistance through a slightly different mechanism. Within the group, it also has the Sustainable Chemistry Alliance, McLaughlin says. The alliance is essentially an investment arm that will contribute small amounts of funding—up to $500,000—to companies that are moving from pilot- to demonstration-scale production. “The purpose of that, of course, is to be a catalyst to help these companies move through the next phase after pilot, when they need to build the demonstration-scale unit,” he says.

Access to legal expertise is another element available at the BRDG Park. One tenant at the site is a law firm that specializes in intellectual property. The firm, Global Patent Group, is perfectly suited for startups that have a technology and don’t know how to value the IP, Gorski says. IP is the central key element of business for many biorefinery companies. “They need help determining how to value it and how to negotiate with other vendors and customers, or other technology companies,” he adds. While the legal services certainly aren’t free, Gorski notes that the firm’s fees are far less than similar firms based out of areas in New York or Chicago. There is also an obvious benefit to working with a law firm that has offices within walking distance to your research facility.

In addition, the BRDG Park is also home to the St. Louis Community College Plant Life Science program, which trains laboratory technicians. “Startup companies know that they have talent to tap into right here—literally right here in the building—from which they can hire and source interns to help build their business.”

In Ontario, BIC helps its tenants leverage the local petrochemical industry. “Sarnia has a very large center around the oil and gas industry,” McLaughlin says. “It’s probably the largest industrial center for oil and gas in eastern Canada. We’re well-networked back to the petroleum-based chemical stream, so we can help companies network and link up some future partners.” The board members of the Sustainable Chemistry Alliance also feature a great deal of experience in manufacturing and the chemical sectors. “They are well networked in the industry and can offer a lot of experience to the companies they work with,” McLaughlin adds.

Startup Experiences

Phycal Inc. is one company that has benefitted through involvement with the BRDG Park. The company was established in 2006 and is focused on the development of algae-based biofuels.

“Our business is really helped out a lot by being in the BRDG Park,” says Mark Abad, Phycal’s senior scientist, noting that his company’s work at the park focuses on the development of metabolically enhanced algae strains. “A lot of it is based on basic cell biology and genetic engineering; taking advantage of known gene functions and incorporating them in traits to help produce those strains,” he says.

Being located in the same building as St. Louis Community College’s program has been especially beneficial, Abad says. “What that provides us as a startup company is some stability. Not only do we borrow equipment from them when we have to, or they borrow expertise from us when they have to, but there are also interns available through their program. It’s a good, symbiotic relationship.” This includes the ability to contract with the college for certain research services, which typically involves tasks that Phycal requires infrequently and doesn’t have the equipment on hand to complete. “It gives us a lot more flexibility,” Abad says. “In a small operation you need to be flexible and quick.”

While Phycal is focusing on cell biology, a cellulosic ethanol plant is leveraging the pilot facilities available at BIC. Woodland Biofuels Inc. is working to develop a pilot-scale operation at the center, which is expected to be operational by mid-2012.

“The Bioindustrial Innovation Center is designed to house pilot and demonstration plants that use biomass as feedstocks,” says Greg Nuttall, Woodland Biofuels’ president and CEO. “In other words, it’s designed for exactly what we are doing. We’ve found it very helpful working with them. They’ve done an excellent job.”

Permitting is one area in which Nuttall says the staff of BIC has been especially helpful. “Permitting can be a rather time-consuming, resource-consuming task,” he says. “Basically, they are handling it for us. We have to give them our information—what emissions we expect and so on—but they are dealing with all of the regulatory agencies on our behalf.”

When considering establishing operations at a research and development park, Abad notes it’s important to understand what your needs will be. “Think hard about what you are going to need, and make sure you have access to expertise and equipment that is essential to your core business, and locate as close as you can to that expertise and equipment, and source of trained labor,” he says.

Nuttall agrees that it’s important to ensure a particular facility fits your needs. “It’s also about the people you are working with,” he says. “In the case of the Bioindustrial Innovation Center, they’ve got a great team there with a lot of expertise behind them, and a lot of experience. They’ve been very helpful to us.”

It’s also important to consider what each park is looking for regarding its tenants. “We look for companies that have technology related to agriculture and the plant and life sciences,” says Gorski. “We’re really looking for companies with exciting, new technology, and that have a sort of technology that will lead to successful commercialization.” This includes strong financials.

McLaughlin says financials are also important to BIC. “Obviously we need to see a technology that’s been proven at the research level and is ready to go to the pilot-scale,” he says. “And, they’ve got to have enough financing to help them through that.” A strong development team, he adds, is also imperative.

Author: Erin Voegele
Associate Editor, Biorefining Magazine
(701) 540-6986
[email protected]