As boxes of laboratory equipment were unpacked and the sign for the
BioEnterprise Center in Holland Township was installed last week,
prospective tenants toured what promises to put West Michigan at the
cutting edge of renewable energy technology.
Throughout the commotion, the center's new manager Randy Olinger
beamed at the activity and interest. "We don't even have floor tiles on
the entryway yet, and we are already hosting prospective tenants," says
Olinger, who holds a dual position on the business development team at
Lakeshore Advantage Corp.
is talking about renewable energy these days -- solar, wind,
geothermal. And the niche for the new BioEnterprise Center -- part of
the Michigan State University Bioeconomy Institute -- is developing
biomass as a renewable energy source.
The concept is as old as the first human who ever burned a log for
warmth. Plants convert and store the sun's rays as chemical energy that
can then be released later as useful work. Even oil, coal and natural
gas are forms of biomass, but they've been converted by nature over
millions of years into the resources we know today.
The business incubator at 188 Howard Street hopes to speed up the
process for today's world. Instead of waiting years for a tree to
grow, possibilities include making alcohol from corn stover, switch
grass and a fast growing plant called Miscanthus.
While basic research is promising, it's still tricky -- and expensive -- to coax fuel from plant materials such as cellulose.
“Many of these kinds of operations are too capital-intensive for a
small company,” says Olinger. "They can’t afford the kind of laboratory
and pilot plant that we will build here. And one of the advantages is
the vast resources of MSU.”
Synergy is a word used so
freely that it almost has lost its meaning, but it fits this operation
perfectly. The industrial laboratory straddles Allegan and Ottawa
counties, the top two counties respectively for agricultural production
in Michigan in 2007. Breakthroughs at the center may be implemented in
these communities, says Olinger, so it makes sense to have Lakeshore
Advantage play a part as administrator of the former Pfizer building.
Lakeshore Advantage is the economic development organization serving
the Holland-Zeeland-Saugatuck communities and a partner with the
Michigan Economic Development Corp.
is a wonderful fit for the project because the university has developed
a deep body of knowledge about the use of agriculture-based natural
resources and how products make their way into the bioeconomy, Olinger
MSU will reap a number of benefits for its
cooperation, says Paul M. Hunt, associate vice president for research
and graduate studies who is coordinating the arrangement for MSU. Hunt
said the university got involved with the project to serve four primary
• Advancing MSU’s activities in research and teaching
• Connecting with private-sector leadership to support the development of companies in the field of biomass energy
the notion of embedded research, in which MSU researchers and their
private-sector sponsors work side-by-side and see each other every day,
rather than the more distance relationships that are typical of
private-sector-sponsored university research
• The opportunity to be
involved with a pilot plant for production and development of biomass
initiatives, which Hunt described as an unusual resource for a public
Working Side By Side
a company gives the university money in a traditional sponsored
research agreement, the company sponsor and the researcher may see each
other every six months,” Hunt says. “If the company researchers are
co-located with the university’s researchers, they’ll see each other
six times a day, and one has to assume the frequency of interaction
will have an accelerating effect on the technology transfer.”
Hunt believes companies that work within the facility will have a
smoother process getting from viable concepts to large-scale production
because many of the hard-to-come-by resources needed for such a
transition will be available.
“For a chemical or manufacturing firm to take something that works
on the bench and get it to scale up, when you’re factoring the scale-up
of 100 or more, is a daunting task,” Hunt says. “But it also takes
capital equipment that a small company typically does not possess.”
Such equipment will be available to companies operating in the
Bioeconomy Institute – a fact that Olinger believes will help attract
tenants. The target tenant, Olinger says, is a private-sector company
with development interests related to the “bioeconomy agenda” and
aligned with MSU’s research interests.
“We want folks that have high growth potential, certainly, and are
well-founded in their financial capabilities and management
capabilities,” Olinger says.
added that tenants need not necessarily be start-up firms, and in fact
indicated an interest in a company with some maturity that might
consequently have the ability to work with MSU researchers in pursuing
more advanced goals.
The Right Site
The building’s Pfizer lineage
will come into play to a greater extent than the use of the facility
itself. Seven former Pfizer staffers will operate out of the building
managing the physical operations – led by Bill Freckman, who also
managed the facility’s physical operations during his days with Pfizer.
“It’s a chemical building,” Freckman says. “So there is a high
priority on HVAC, heating, boilers to maintain and all the facilities
that go along with this.”Freckman says his team will soon begin working
with potential tenants about operational details of the pilot plant.
Pfizer’s donation of the building is valued at $9 million, in
addition to about $1 million worth of what Hunt described as “spare
funding for the initiative includes a $3.4 million grant from the
Michigan Strategic Fund to support the cost of ownership and operations
of the facility, a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor’s
Workforce Invitation for Regional Development to support transitional
employment for training personnel, and a $142,000 congressional earmark
in the recent funding bill for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban
Development for building improvements.
Dan Calabrese is the co-founder and editor in chief of North Star Writers Group and
previously owned a West Michigan public relations firm by the same
name. He has written for the Macomb Daily, the Royal Oak Daily Tribune,
the Journal Newspapers in Wayne County and the Grand Rapids Business
Journal. He most recently wrote for Rapid Growth about Immersive Labs
and community banking leader Laurie Beard.
Matt Gryczan is the managing editor of Rapid Growth.
BioEnterprise Center in Holland Township.
Center manager Randy Olinger.
Lab awaiting new research tenants.
Former Pfizer employee and new physical operations manager Bill Freckman.
Lab awaiting new research tenants.Photographs by Brian Kelly -All rights Reserved