Minnesota is well-known nationally for its health care and medical technology industries, but local lab space for new biotech companies is in short supply.
University Enterprise Laboratories (UEL), a St. Paul nonprofit, aims to provide space for such startups, but with 60 other companies currently using its large facility, there’s no more room.
This quandary motivated Greater MSP, the Twin Cities’ regional development organization, to pitch an ambitious vision for what it is calling the Bold North BioInnovation Cluster. A key component of this proposal includes a UEL lab space expansion.
Greater MSP is competing for $100 million in federal money that would serve as the project’s startup capital. Organizations across the U.S. are competing for a total of $1 billion in funds under the “Build Back Better Regional Challenge” led by U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA).
In mid-December, Greater MSP was named as one of 60 finalists across the U.S., beating out 469 other proposals to make it to the short list. Second-phase proposals are due March 15. The EDA will select 20 to 30 winners in September, which will be awarded funds ranging from $25 million to $100 million.
Peter Frosch, CEO of Greater MSP, said the federal money is just part of the equation and would be joined by much larger private investments.
“The opportunity is much bigger. It’s millions of dollars over five years to catalyze billions of dollars over a generation,” Frosch said. “That’s the opportunity.”
MSP’s concept calls for focusing on two bio sectors: health and agriculture.
“We made it to this list because we had a really good story to tell,” said Amanda Taylor, Greater MSP’s vice president of research and intelligence. “They’re saying, ‘You’ve proven that you have something competitive here.'”
More than 50 organizations are supporting of the project, including large corporations like Cargill, Ecolab, Medtronic, Land O’Lakes and General Mills, as well as other notable institutions like the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota Foundation.
With inclusion and diversity in job and economic growth at the fore, the Center for Economic Inclusion, Summit OIC and Pillsbury United Communities are also coalition partners.
In late 2020, Fairview Health Services announced it was closing St. Joseph’s hospital in downtown St. Paul. While part of the property is being converted to a community wellness center, Greater MSP’s pitch suggests transforming part of the former hospital into a bio-focused innovation hub.
“We are short now on space, certain lab space, for bio-based companies,” Frosch said. “That’s a reality today. We need more of that space today. If we had it in ’21 and ’22 we would be filling it. That is not speculative.”
For UEL, the federal grant could mean another 12 to 18 lab spaces in its current building, which is a converted Target warehouse.
“We are currently full. We have essentially more companies needing the dry lab space and wet lab space than we can accommodate, even with the expansion that we just opened two to three years ago,” said Diane Rucker, executive director of UEL. “This would be to support startups and early-stage growth companies.”
Frosch said there are out-of-state biotech companies considering establishing a Minnesota presence. The BioInnovation cluster concept would bolster Greater MSP’s case to lure them here.
“It’s about attraction and it’s about expansion,” Frosch said. “Companies that no one’s ever heard of before are really important right now in this game.”