It's been built with hopes they'll come
WORTHINGTON -- The former Bioscience Park spec building that's now home to offices for the University of Minnesota Extension is poised to become much, much more.
Worthington's Biotechnology Advancement Center (BAC), with Extension as its tenant, already has the capability to serve major components of the agricultural arena. Glenn Thuringer, who serves as manager of Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp., sees the potential for far bigger and better things.
"We see that the Extension's clientele are members of the corn growers and soybean associations, the cattle producers and many other important agricultural groups," Thuringer said. "These associations give out dollars to help start businesses that promote the use of their respective products, and we'd like these different organizations to know there's a facility in the region that they can utilize in developing new products, and that these organizations don't have to duplicate the funding of labs and other spaces. That way, they can use more of their money into research and development of their products."
In addition to attracting business into the BAC, a primary goal for Thuringer and WREDC is to enhance the likelihood of young students advancing into careers in the biosciences.
"When we started this project several years ago, our drive was and still is to develop a pool of industrial applied lab technicians to work in the regional industries sectors," Thuringer explained. "Minnesota West had been very active in the establishment of that program, but we need to go further to enhance the opportunities for younger students in this area by developing a career path."
Creating such a career path would ultimately make the Minnesota West college program sustainable, but it's not something that will happen overnight. Last fall, Thuringer said, WREDC submitted an application to the National Science Foundation that sought a $900,000, three-year grant, 100 percent of it targeted for educational purposes. The application, though, was rejected, Thuringer learned in late February.
"They gave us some really valuable feedback that the reviewers had written regarding our application, and we feel that will help us in the future when we reapply," Thuringer said. "In my opinion, one of the main reasons we got turned down is that they (National Science Foundation) were anticipating 60 to 70 applications for the $60 million that they had in the fund, and they got 254 applications. The entries applying for second and third time may have gotten a priority, and justifiably so.
"Having said that," Thuringer continued, "I think there's a good portion of our program that we can implement internally without having to incur large expenses."
One critical component of the effort is building on the existing Worthington Middle School eighth-grade science club and working with the current science club at Worthington High School. The instructor talent is definitely in place at the high school.
"I think we can help enhance the existing high school science club to make that continuous career path from eighth grade up through science classes that prepare those kids for the college curriculum," Thuringer said. "This is going to take input and assistance from a lot of different areas, and we know that the private sector is also willing to be involved.
"We think the BAC can be an integral part of this by using the facility to interact with the private sector -- the companies that will be occupying incubator space," he added. "By establishing this career path, we think we can help sustain college-level programs."
Of course, Thuringer understands that not every student who gets involved in science clubs in middle school and high school aspires to stay in Worthington. But there's also the example, he pointed out, of Lance Baumgard, a Round Lake High School graduate who is now an associate professor at Iowa State University and a scheduled speaker at next week's eighth annual Regional Bioscience Conference.
"We can help keep more of these types of students here by working with some regional four-year institutions to establish a program that can offer an additional two years after the Minnesota West experience," Thuringer said. "That way, those students can get a four-year degree and still be in the local and regional workforce."
Thuringer noted that several regional higher education institutions assisted with the formulation of the National Science Foundation grant application, adding that he was impressed to learn of how many area instructors have doctorates and/or are published in a variety of scientific journals.
"That just really confirmed to me that we have the level of instructors needed to succeed in doing something like this," he said. "Some of these classes and labs could be at the BAC -- I think we would certainly utilize the best facility, whether it's the college or the BAC, for the particular class or lab."
In the meantime, WREDC is currently working with three companies as potential fits for the BAC.
"Two of them may not locate in the center, but they may have contract work that they'd like to have done, such as packaging and shipping, and the other one would be the final manufacturing part of their process," Thuringer said. "We think this is work that may be the BAC coordinator could do, and that would be revenue to pay for that position.
"We would not consider that the ideal scenario because we want to create jobs, but we think the coordinator is the most important position to get self-sustained, as we see that person as someone working very closely with the educational systems and specifically that career path," he added. "Some of that work can potentially be embedded into one of the college courses. ... Students would learn proper protocol for handling these types of products, and we think these clean-room type experiences would make them more valuable to the companies."
The BAC currently has three bays that can house companies, with the space offering plenty of flexibility. Two of the bays offer slightly more than 3,300 square feet; the other is 5,000 square feet but includes its own offices.
"Of the incubators I have toured over the years, the companies we would anticipate using this facility go into a couple hundred square feet," Thuringer surmised, "We actually think there could be multiple companies in each of these bays, especially because we're providing lab space in another portion of the building."