Published: July 22, 2014

Bioeconomy Institute: Scaling up companies, future entrepreneurs

By: Melissa Delekta Media Communications melissa.delekta@cabs.msu.eduContact(s): Penny Davis Media Communications office: (517) 355-5158, Monique Field Office of the Vice President for Governmental Affairs

When Michigan State University accepted the Holland-based Bioeconomy Institute in 2007 as a gift from Pfizer, it took on a $50 million-plus property that was poised to set MSU apart from other universities.

The institute offers a wide range of services that appeal to both startup and well-established companies. The facilities are capable of replicating and testing what happens in a lab setting in full-scale production – also known as scale up.

It also offers production services, conducts sponsored research and testing, facilitates business incubation opportunities, leases lab space, and provides educational programming and training. All of these services are funded through facility revenue and grant money – no tuition money is used for operations.

The Bioeconomy Institute offers its clients an opportunity to test products at a much larger scale. By partnering with the institute, companies gain access to a 30,000-liter production quantity potential, 31,000 square feet of modern laboratories to house up to 125 researchers, and more. According to Bill Freckman, the institute’s director of operations, the infrastructure required for a full-scale production can be a large expenditure. Offering this critical service allows start-ups to bring new products to market quicker.

“Our role at MSU is not only economic development and helping entrepreneurial businesses develop ‘green’ chemical technologies and green chemistry, but helping small companies survive the challenges of commercialization quickly,” Freckman said.

With grants from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, the institute has helped scale up processes for more than a dozen businesses, ranging from two-person operations to Fortune 500 companies.

The institute also has the ability to provide opportunities to students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

“Students who weren’t sure about attending graduate school, or those who were just not ready, have the opportunity to go on to that level after experiencing a summer here,” said Tom Guarr, director of research and development.

Guarr leads the institute’s summer internship program for undergraduate students. This summer the facility is host to 10 interns from universities across the state.

Since its inception, the institute has been able to attract out-of-state companies to Michigan, as well as enhance Michigan-based firms. Here are a few examples.

With 17 employees in two West Michigan facilities, Pleotint was looking for a way to scale up the production of its smart window technology without having to make a costly capital investment.

“We consider the institute’s team as partners in the process,” said Chris Anderson, Pleotint senior research scientist. “We are leasing its great expertise and facility, allowing us to scale up much faster and at a lower cost than we would be able to do otherwise. The institute is essentially an extension of our organization.”

As one of the Bioeconomy Institute’s first clients, Pleotint is the world’s top innovator in self-tinting windows. Pleotint produces Suntuitive glass technology that uses heat from sunlight to tint windows when necessary. It has sales worldwide and is anticipating growing its workforce to accommodate the expanding market.

Renmatix is another example of a company that brought research and development projects to Michigan because of the institute. As the leading producer of affordable cellulosic sugars, Renmatix was recognized as one of ten 2014 New Energy Pioneers by Bloomberg New Energy Finance for its technology's impact on bioindustry.

“The Bioeconomy Institute was essential in helping us continue to scale our process in preparation for commercial deployment,” said Frank Lipiecki, research and development director for Renmatix.

Research at the institute helped fine-tune the proprietary biomass conversion process, which avoids the use of costly consumables and operates with reactions that take only seconds. This contribution is an important step in helping to develop nonfood, plant-based alternatives to petrochemical products.

Marrone Bio Innovations Inc., a Davis, Calif. bio-based pesticide manufacturer, has turned an abandoned manufacturing plant in Bangor, Mich., into its new state-of-the-art production facility. Marrone Michigan Manufacturing opened the plant on July 1 with a ribbon cutting attended by local, state and federal dignitaries. Its proximity to the institute was a major factor in the company’s decision to open the plant.

“The grand opening of the Marrone Michigan Manufacturing facility is great news for Southwest Michigan and our entire state,” said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture. “We know how to grow things and make things, so it’s no surprise that Marrone chose to invest right here in Michigan.”

Marrone already had a relationship with MSU before it knew of the Bioeconomy Institute. It had been working with the Michigan Biotechnology Institute for the fermentation stage of Thaxtomin A, a bio-based pesticide that prevents the growth of potato scab, a disease of major economic importance in most potato-producing areas of the world.

"Marrone Michigan Manufacturing is precisely the type of innovative bio-based business Michigan is attracting and proves manufacturing is alive and well in Michigan," said State Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Paw Paw. "From our skilled workforce to the quality of life, this is truly a pure Michigan story that speaks volumes."

And Marrone is already planning on expanding the facility by the end of the year. With 24 employees currently on board, the company is looking to add up to 40 more employees by 2017.

"It proves once again that Southwest Michigan is the best place to live, to work, to play, to grow jobs and to see investment," said State Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph. "The quality of life can't be beat, we know that's the case. The question is do we have the kind of resources available for the kind of entrepreneurial investment that you see here today? And this is proof that we do."

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