By David Dodds
The “REAC 1,” which houses the University of North Dakota’s Center of Excellence in Life Sciences and Advanced Technologies (COELSAT), is the culmination of several years of planning.
Now nearing reality, the $16 million-plus, 50,000-square-foot REAC 1 will provide a research and development hub to increase UND’s output of innovative patents and get them commercialized with corporate partners.
It also signals the brick-and-mortar launch of the UND Research Foundation’s (UNDRF) Research Enterprise and Commercialization (REAC) Park, a place where high-tech businesses can set up shop, grow, and build production operations close by.
It’s all about “clustering,” according to Jim Petell, UNDRF executive director.
“The whole idea is to bring new companies here to North Dakota to develop new growth market segment clusters,” Petell said. It is anticipated that 70 new jobs will be created in North Dakota within the next year alone as a result of the onset of REAC 1 and the companies it hosts.
Within REAC 1, the COELSAT will feature six companies working in one of two research clusters: life sciences or advanced technology. The companies all have ties to UND researchers and students. Four are a mix of established and burgeoning engineering firms; the other two specialize in the development of innovative vaccines and therapeutics for infectious diseases.
The companies are Avianax, Inc., Grand Forks; NovaDigm Therapeutics, Inc., Los Angeles; Ideal Aerosmith, East Grand Forks; Alion Science and Technology, McLean, Va.; Laserlith Corp., Grand Forks; and SUNRISE Renewables, Grand Forks. The UND units working with these partners include the School of Engineering and Mines’ Engineered Surfaces Center and the School of Medicine and Health Sciences’ Department of Microbiology and Immunology.
Even before the first experiment is conducted in REAC 1, Petell’s clustering vision has taken firm hold. The new COELSAT tenant companies are rubbing elbows with each other, working collaboratively on new business developments that one day could be patented, and possibly mass produced, in new centers in the REAC Park or elsewhere in North Dakota.
The opportunity to explore partnerships with other high-tech engineering companies is exactly what drew the attention of Ideal Aerosmith, a world leader in motion simulation and navigational testing.
Ideal Aerosmith comes highly regarded in the defense industry for its performance tests of instruments on airplanes, rockets and missile systems. By teaming with another REAC 1 tenant, Laserlith, it has found a whole new niche to apply its expertise.
“We’ve already begun working with them on what could become a huge project for both of us in the oil industry,” said Lonnie Rogers, Ideal Aerosmith president. Rogers has been a strong supporter of the project and has accompanied Petell on several important trips to Bismarck for visits with governmental groups.
Laserlith president Cassindy Chao said her company’s expertise in wireless micro-machined components, or MEMS (microelectromechanical systems), is a natural fit for collaboration with Rogers’ company in the extreme environmental sensors market.
“We expect to find a lot of synergistic opportunities out there by working together,” Chao said.
Chao also looks forward to working with UND’s School of Engineering and Mines in designing, testing and demonstrating MEMS communication linkages on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS).
“UND has the expertise,” Chao said. “We have tremendous rapport with the professors at UND. They are very knowledgeable and very experienced.”
Eventually, Laserlith plans to manufacture defense communication antennas and cell phone transmitter modules in Grand Forks using MEMS technology.
Chao said REAC 1 has everything her company needs for a successful launch in North Dakota, from security and surveillance for technology protection to ready-made office and conferencing spaces.
Just ‘makes sense’
Jim Richtsmeier, an Ideal Aerosmith senior vice president and a UND graduate, said REAC 1 is a perfect place to expand the research and development side of the company. Most of Ideal Aerosmith’s work there will be in the area of mechanical and electrical engineering. There may be some collaboration opportunities with UAS research as well, he said.
“There are two things that come to mind right off the bat why this makes sense for us,” Richtsmeier said. “First, there’s the chance to network with other technology companies so that we can find ways to explore projects together. Second, there’s the proximity to UND and the opportunity to work on projects with different government agencies, such as the Departments of Energy and Defense.”
The close working relationship with UND’s engineering school also should translate into a steady pool of high-quality employees for the company, Rogers said.
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LIFE SCIENCES AND ADVANCED TECHNOLOGIES
“We have worked with UND on similar projects previously,” he said. “Several of our senior managers worked with Ideal as interns while studying at the University. Ideal has real opportunity for growth, but to grow successfully, an excellent resource for additional people is always needed.”
Built to suit
Ideal Aerosmith officials also like how carefully the REAC 1 was designed by Perkins & Will and built by PCL Construction Services, Inc., both out of Minneapolis. They incorporated special controls into the structure for vibration-sensitive equipment. It’s an important consideration for the accuracy-dependent work that the company does for the U.S. military and other global customers.
The REAC 1’s design and components also have attracted companies such as NovaDigm Therapeutics, Inc., from the West Coast to the prairies of North Dakota. The facility is equipped with several laboratories, including the only biosafety level-3 (BSL-3) research labs in North Dakota.
Special air-handling systems, which in some instances require four separate pressure changes before researchers can enter, are key features that make REAC 1 labs uniquely equipped to accommodate research on antibodies and vaccines for infectious diseases.
NovaDigm was founded in 2005 by six National Institutes of Health-funded academic scientists from the Division of Infectious Diseases at Harbor-University of California-Los Angeles Medical Center. The company is developing a vaccine that targets both Candida and Staphylococcus aureus, which have been linked to thousands of deaths and hospital bills totaling $4 billion each year.
Tuomas Holmberg, NovaDigm vice president, said a discussion a few years ago with a group of researchers in Fargo led to the company’s involvement in the REAC 1.
“There is a push out there right now to put infrastructure in areas that don’t typically have it,” Holmberg said. “What makes the REAC 1 and North Dakota stand out for us is their passion and the vision. It’s something we don’t see as greatly in states on either coast.”
The right formula
As with the relationship Laserlith and Ideal Aerosmith have developed, NovaDigm officials see similar opportunities to collaborate with Avianax, Inc., the other biotech firm going into REAC 1.
Petell adds that both NovaDigm and Avianax will benefit from UND’s strong relationships with Winnipeg-based Cangene Corp., a major manufacturer of vaccines and antibodies for clinical testing, and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
“Who could believe what we’re seeing here today?” Petell asks rhetorically. “I don’t think you even have these kinds of opportunities on the coasts.”
Another great example of the clustering phenomenon in action is the strategic alliance of Avianax with Aldevron, Fargo, to develop avian antibodies on a larger platform. Aldevron’s DNA vaccine system, ParallelaVax, is an excellent fit for Avianax to more rapidly produce therapeutic antibodies.
Petell points out that none of the synergies would have occurred without REAC 1. He touts a formula for success needed to develop cutting-edge research centers. He calls it “The Four ‘I’s”: intellectual capital, intellectual property, infrastructure and investment.
UND and partners such as the UNDRF have the ingredients in abundance. The University supplies the intellectual and creative capital; the school’s technology transfer and commercialization office turns it into intellectual property and protects it; REAC 1 is the infrastructure that nurtures the technology and prepares it for mass production; and it’s all supported by investment from city, state and federal government.
What made REAC 1 a reality is a strong partnership between Gov. John Hoeven’s Centers of Excellence for Economic Development program and the city of Grand Forks, with the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. being an early and active partner. About $8.5 million was funded through bank loans and bonds; the remainder was supplied by investments from the Centers of Excellence program ($3.5 million), U.S. Economic Development Administration ($1.5 million), North Dakota Development Fund ($750,000), and the City of Grand Forks Growth Fund ($500,000).
Sen. Byron Dorgan’s vision for the Red River Valley Research Corridor was critical to attracting these companies to North Dakota. Dorgan helped secure funding for these companies to develop and make their products in North Dakota.
Among those who will most immediately benefit from these partnerships are UND students through potential research experience and job prospects.
“We need to educate them,” said Petell, “and provide real-world research experience so we can help them succeed and, hopefully, stay here to work at these new companies that we’re growing in North Dakota. That is the circle.”