Willmar to get bioscience center

WILLMAR - A $2.5 million bioscience research laboratory and business development center is being launched on the MinnWest Technology Campus, providing a major step for the future of the campus, bio-businesses and the local economy.

BioTech building
This building on the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar will house the new biotechnology research and business development center.

WILLMAR - A $2.5 million bioscience research laboratory and business development center is being launched on the MinnWest Technology Campus, providing a major step for the future of the campus, bio-businesses and the local economy.

The Department of Employment and Economic Development announced Monday it has awarded a $1.25 million Bioscience Business Development Public Infrastructure grant to convert an existing building on the 100-acre campus for what will be called the Mid-Central Biosciences Center. MinnWest will provide another $1.25 million to purchase equipment for the laboratory.

The project is a unique collaboration between the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, the city of Willmar -- which is the actual recipient of the grant and will own the building -- and MinnWest, a private venture that provides facilities for new and expanding businesses in biosciences, said Steve Salzer, general manager at MinnWest.

Jim Sieben, president of MinnWest said he's not aware of another example in Minnesota where private industry, public higher education and a community have collaborated so closely.

The U of M will operate the laboratory and provide faculty and graduate students that will oversee the research.


St. Cloud State University will take the lead for MnSCU.

Students provide the "hands-on research and development" businesses need and get the applied training and internships they need to work in the bioscience industry, Salzer said.

Robert Jones, U of M senior vice president, said the facility will provide a "strategic opportunity" for the university to "leverage its resources" to create a presence in Willmar and provide technical assistance that will "drive innovation" in the private sector.

The research and development that's conducted at the lab will be paid for by biotechnology businesses, which could range from pharmaceuticals to renewable energy to agribusiness.

The center and its support lab will especially benefit startup or small bioscience companies that would otherwise be unable to afford the research independently, Salzer said, and help them take a business idea all the way to commercialization.

By having access to expensive equipment that may only be needed once or twice for testing, a small company can utilize the lab and students to fine-tune their product, as well as the business development that's needed to bring that product to the market, said Salzer.

"We see this as a perfect match-up," he said. "We feel this is a perfect situation to have that collaboration."

Jones said the partnership will provide a good opportunity for the University to work collaboratively with MnSCU and private industries while giving students the "hands on" experience they need to be better employees.


At the same time, said Jones, businesses in Greater Minnesota will have the opportunity to use the service laboratory and tap into the expertise of the school faculty and researchers.

That could help increase the number of bioscience businesses in the community.

In a joint press release from the U of M and MnSCU, University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks said the partnership could "turn Willmar into the bio-business hub of the country."

"This is a big step toward realizing MinnWest's goal of advancing Willmar as a center of economic excellence," said Sieben.

The Mid-Central Biosciences Center will bring 25-30 new jobs to the campus, which currently has 230 employees and 15 tenants.

Salzer said the center is "probably the biggest thing that could've happened to MinnWest in its lifecycle."

Besides the staff at the laboratory, the center will attract new technology businesses and high paying jobs to Willmar. He said the research center will be "a huge catalyst" to the local economy.

Salzer said that without the grant, MinnWest would not have been able to fund the laboratory.


Renovation of the three-story building will begin this fall and will be operational by the fall of 2009 or the spring of 2010, said Salzer. The project will include a "wet lab" as well as classrooms. MinnWest opened about three years ago on the site of the former Willmar Regional Treatment Center.

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