Worthington's Biotechnology Advancement Center seeking tenants
WORTHINGTON -- What began as a challenge from the Blandin Foundation nine years ago -- a challenge for Worthington city leaders to identify an economic development opportunity within the community -- has now grown to include a bioscience curriculum at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, development of the Biotechnology Advancement Center in the bioscience park, an annual Bioscience Conference and a heightened awareness of research and entrepreneurial opportunities that exist in the growing industry.
Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp. and the city of Worthington received a $134,000 grant from the Blandin Foundation in 2003 to kick-start the local bioscience initiative. That money was used to develop curriculum at Minnesota West, and a $2.5 million contribution from the State of Minnesota in 2005 helped fund infrastructure (street development) in the bioscience park.
It wasn't until the city partnered with Nobles County in 2006 to invest $410,000 in a spec building in the park that the dream of fostering business growth in the biosciences became a visible reality.
Since the city took over the county's share to become sole owner of the structure, grant dollars have continued to pour in -- nearly $800,000 in state and federal money -- and another $1.3 million in State of Minnesota appropriations to further develop the spec building into what it is today.
Now, it's a matter of finding businesses who can utilize the space.
Worthington Alderman and former Minnesota West president Ron Wood is excited about the opportunities that exist for research, education and business development in the Biotechnology Advancement Center. He said the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Center's move into the building two weeks ago is not only a source of revenue for building operations, but its staff also provide a presence for people who stop in to see what the facility has to offer.
"(They) create an avenue for businesses to contact," said Wood.
Now serving as interim president at Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU) in Marshall, Wood said the community research lab is an integral part of the building, as are connections already forged with four-year colleges like SMSU, South Dakota State University and Minnesota State University-Mankato, as well as Minnesota West.
"We have the ability to take expertise from SMSU ... Mankato and SDSU, and Minnesota West has some of the application expertise that a four-year university might not have," Wood said. "By bringing this synergy together ... we could help a company that already exists, like Prairie Holdings in Worthington or Ralco in Marshall."
Wood said the bottom line it to foster growth in existing businesses and make southwest Minnesota an attractive place to launch a business in the biotech industry.
"We've always thought that to make the bioscience part operate, we needed to go with the training center and an incubator," he added. "What we need, really, is a place where small businesses can come in, and (we can) help them exist for a period of time and help them grow."
With the addition of the community research lab space and offices for the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Center, the BAC has reached the point of having a "professional looking facility," said Wood, adding that the new appearance will help market the building to potential occupants.
According to Glenn Thuringer, WREDC manager, the 1,972-square-foot research lab will be completed within the next six to nine months.
"We're still gathering input from industry as to the best structure of these labs," he said. "Within the next 60 days, we're hoping to have a design laid out and begin the process for lab completion by late spring. That's the best-case scenario."
As the research lab is developed, Thuringer will continue to seek businesses willing to rent space in the incubators. The largest bay is 5,000 square feet, with the two smaller bays measuring 3,309 square feet.
"We think they are very marketable," said Thuringer, adding that the bays can be built-out to suit any potential occupant.
"Within the next nine months we'd like to have at least one company in here, and within a one-year window, have a minimum of two companies," he said.
Already, Thuringer is working with a couple of companies interested in the incubators, including one developer who spoke at the Regional Bioscience Conference in Worthington earlier this year.
While Thuringer said that particular company is a "longshot" in terms of leasing space in Worthington, he is more optimistic about a company from eastern Minnesota that is developing a human product with an option for use in animals.
Although he spoke only of those two connections thus far, Thuringer said he's never had a problem identifying companies.
"We've just never had the facilities -- the education and infrastructure -- to support what we have," he said. Wood agreed.
"When we did the initial Blandin study, we were very labor short of the people to work in a research or production setting," Wood said. "One of the things that will come out of the center is the educational component. We can customize our training, to a very large extent, in these fields."
"Companies want to know where the labor force is coming from and our connections to four-year institutions," added Thuringer. "The third is the speed in which we can have a facility ready for them.
"The education, labor force and the building -- the Biotechnology Advancement Center answers all of that," he said.
At the same time, Thuringer still believes the best leads for potential occupants come from within existing local companies.
"That's one of the things we're really striving for -- to make sure local companies are aware of the new resources this facility provides so they can talk to their companies and resources alike," Thuringer said.
With $5.2 million invested in the BAC -- $4.7 million of which came from grants and state allotments and $500,000 from the city of Worthington -- both Wood and Brad Chapulis, the city's manager of community and economic development, are committed to seeing the BAC succeed.
"Without the WREDC and Southwest Regional Development Commission (seeking grant dollars), those opportunities wouldn't have come along and we wouldn't have proceeded with the project," said Chapulis, who is administering the grants for the BAC.
"Partnerships are crucial to economic development," added Wood. "As we've looked at tight budgets, we've realized we need to work together with WREDC. Without any of those partners (Extension, Minnesota West and others), it's very likely this would not have occurred."