Going Green

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.

Everyone 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.”

Meshing Perfectly
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.

MSU 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 says.

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 objectives:

• 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
• Advancing 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 university.

Working Side By Side
“If 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.

Hunt 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 parts.”

Other 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