MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — The University of Minnesota is teaming up with private developers to establish a major venture-backed commercialization hub next to the school’s Biomedical Discovery District.
Construction could begin in 2011 on The Minnesota Center for Life Science Technology Commercialization, a 60,000-square-foot building designed to convert ideas and technology from the university biomedical researchers into viable start-ups. A key component to the center is a $20 million private venture capital fund that will support the companies.
The center is the first step in establishing the Minnesota Science Park, a planned $750 million, 500,000-square-foot series of facilities adjacent to the Biomedical Discovery District on private land jutting southeast from the TCF Bank Stadium on the east side of the Minneapolis campus.
The park should be Minnesota’s answer to Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, a place where academics, scientists, investors and entrepreneurs converge to create breakthrough innovations developed and sold by homegrown companies, said Peter Bianco, director of lifescience business development of Halleland Health Consulting in Minneapolis. Bianco is spearheading the project.
The Minnesota Science Park represents a watershed moment for the university. Long criticized by politicians and business alike for its inability to translate high-tech research into companies and jobs, the school has made enormous strides in recent years; first fixing its lifeless tech transfer office and then launching the Biomedical Discovery District. The ambitious $292 million, 700,000-square-foot research park groups together the school’s most prized biomedical assets, including the Medical Biosciences building, McGuire Translational Research Facility, Lions Research Building and the Center for Magnetic Resonance and Research.
The science park validates the university’s efforts by adding private sector muscle to the school’s intellectual know-how, said Tim Mulcahy, the U’s vice president of research.
“The development of this public-private partnership represents recognition of the value of our innovations,” Mulcahy said. “People want close access to our people and technology. It will plant a firm anchor in the area and increase the density of companies in close proximity to the U. These are essential elements of an innovation ecosystem. You don’t have to look very far to see the potential,” a reference to the University of Wisconsin’s successful research park across the Mississippi River in Madison.
The key words from Mulcahy’s remarks are “close,” “proximity” and “density.” Minnesota has tried to build incubators before but with little or no success. Bianco should know: He was the first CEO of the University Enterprise Laboratories (UEL) in St. Paul.
The $20 million facility, which opened in 2004, was meant to jump-start a “biosciences corridor,” by commercializing technologies from the U. But UEL suffered from several problems. The facility was located at least 20 minutes by car from the main Minneapolis campus, precluding easy interaction between investors, researchers and entrepreneurs. At the time, the U’s tech transfer office was in disarray, which meant UEL had nothing to incubate. Finally, the UEL had no money, relying instead on corporate contributions and rent from tenants that had little or no connection to the school.
Another example: The Elk Run BioBusiness Park is located in rural Pine Island, 15 minutes by car to Mayo Clinic in Rochester and an hour-and-a-half from the Twin Cities. The developer, Tower Investments, has no experience in research parks. Biotech investor Steve Burrill is planning a $1 billion investment fund to back Elk Run: $500 million goes to biotech start-ups, the rest to Tower’s other real estate projects on the property, including retail, homes and offices.
Bianco says Minnesota Science Park will succeed because it follows the best practice standards developed by the Association of University Research Parks, mainly proximity to a major research university in a dense urban area, experienced developers and a pure, dedicated venture fund. (The AURP will be hosting its annual conference in the Twin Cities in September.)
Under Bianco’s plan, the developer and university will each invest in the venture fund. The commercialization center will house lab and office space for start-ups and facilities where university researchers can interact with companies.
However, major obstacles remain. Facing state budget cuts, the U has limited financial resources. In order for construction to start, the school must lease a good portion of the commercialization center and commit tech transfer and research assets to the facility. So far, the university and developer have not reached an agreement.
Bianco says the state and community need to step up.
“At this moment, we have alignment on wanting to do it but the economy presents a challenge in that we need agreement from the major stakeholders to move forward,” Bianco wrote in an e-mail. “That depends on leasing a major portion of the building to consolidate and concentrate commercialization and translational research assets (in addition to the venture fund) in one location to make the business model work, thus starting the clustering effect.”
“Construction planning can begin at anytime once we have agreement on where the [money] will come to create the space and co-locate those assets in one location,” he continued. “If we get this agreement, it would likely be nine months to having a spade in the ground.”
Mulcahy is cautiously optimistic.
“There’s nothing there yet,” he said. “But it’s an important step in the right direction. I like to think that this could be the start of big things for us.”
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