‘An immense opportunity’: How LEAP wants Greater Lansing to become a med-tech hub

Craig Lyons
Lansing State Journal

LANSING – When Herbert Kavunja joined Iaso Therapeutics as its chief scientist and sole employee, he faced a steep learning curve.

He had to figure out how to write grants, court funders and still push the company’s medical research forward. Kavunja and the company relied on Spartan Innovations for guidance and support in its early days but has seen rapid growth.

The two-year-old start-up,which is focused on developing next generation vaccines, has gone from a technology developed by Michigan State University professor Xuefei Huang to a company that’s netted two Small Business Institute Research grants and a spot in the National Cancer Institute’s CARES program.

“It’s always very good to have a network to support the growth of the company,” Kavunja said.

Iaso Therapeutics in one example of Greater Lansing’s growing medical-technology sector, a piece of the area’s economy the Lansing Economic Area Partnership sees as an opportunity for Greater Lansing. The organization is working to turn the area into a med-tech hub.

Greater Lansing has the pieces it needs: Michigan State University, Lansing Community College, Sparrow Health System, McLaren Greater Lansing, research and development firms, manufacturing companies and health care businesses, LEAP President and CEO Bob Trezise said.

“We’ve got to put that all together,” he said.

Greater Lansing has many strengths in the health and technology sector, Dr. Norman Beauchamp, MSU’s executive vice president for health sciences, said. That value has not been leveraged to see the possible growth, he said.

“If we bring those together we could do some incredible work in health transformation,” Beauchamp said.

Companies will realize they don’t need to be in North Carolina’s Research Triangle or California’s Silicon Valley if another location such as Lansing showcases what’s available, Niowave President Mike Zamiara said. The Lansing-based Niowave creates radioisotopes for medical and industrial uses.

“We’re on the verge of some really special things happening by combining and collaborating,” Zamiara said.

Taking stock of the state of med-tech

Greater Lansing already has a cluster of industries in health care and manufacturing, Keith Lambert, LEAP’s vice president of business attraction, said. The area also has businesses to support health care: medical device companies, research and development firms and health technology firms.

LEAP saw those assets and created an advisory group focused on bringing those entities together to discuss growth and business attraction, Lambert said.

“We’re seeing an immense opportunity,” Lambert said said.

Greater Lansing has $1.5 billion in ongoing or recent investment in research, manufacturing and health tied tied to life sciences, according to LEAP.

Health and science-tied jobs account for 10% of the Lansing area’s overall employment, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That includes more than 11,000 health care practitioners or technicians, roughly 7,800 health care support jobs and roughly 3,000 life, physical science or social science jobs, according to BLS.

Beauchamp said growing the med-tech sector will create many new, well-paying jobs in the area.

But making Greater Lansing a med-tech hub will take work. LEAP has applied for $1.1 million in federal funds to coordinate businesses in that sector and to build up a start-up accelerator program.

The federal grant will enhance LEAP’s business attraction efforts and plan for an investment fund to recruit people and companies, Trezise said.

The vision for med-tech is looking at both what’s coming and going, Tony Willis, LEAP’s chief equity development officer and president of the PROTO Accelerator, said. LEAP wants to attract new talent, help existing companies export their ideas and foster new start-ups.

“We have to provide that ecosystem,” Trezise said.

Showing people the potential

In economic development, a key point is having a niche industry robust enough so that if a company recruits a high-end scientist, that person’s family should feel at home with job and quality-of-life opportunities, Trezise said.

“That’s why it’s so important to build this whole niche,” Trezise said. Greater Lansing can be a place people can build a whole career and not just the location of a single job, he said.

The work between the commercial side and the academic side is key, Zamiara said. The companies know what their needs are and colleges and universities can help them figure out how to meet those needs.

MSU, LCC and others have adapted the courses to meet the workforce demands of many med-tech companies, Zamiara said. That means companies can hire people with experience in the field without a great deal of extra training, he said.

“That’s, for us, huge,” Zamiara said.

Creating a cluster, building cooperation

When Trezise thinks about a med-tech park, he pictures eastbound Dunkel Road or Michigan Avenue. He envisions a place with archways so people know they are in a med-tech campus and see the potential.

Creating a technology campus would help people collaborate on ideas and products, Beauchamp said. A researcher with a new product will need a person who knows the regulatory process, manufacturing or marketing, he said.

Clusters of med-tech companies exist already but are spread apart, Lambert said. Several companies are located near the Capital Region International Airport, some are around MSU and others will likely sprout up around the new McLaren hospital once it is built, he said.

MSU has research centers, labs and facilities available for med-tech entrepreneurs and researchers but many don’t realize those opportunities are available, Beauchamp said.

If those components are brought into proximity, an idea could easily go from discovery to implementation, Beauchamp said.

“I think the pieces are largely here but the mechanism to convene them, such as a biotech park, is missing,” Beauchamp said.

Iaso Therapeutics turned to the MSU Foundation’s Spartan Innovation’s program to help get its start. Spartan Innovations has provided initial guidance on the feasibility of the business, lab space, funding support and leveraged resources for the growing company, Robert Forgey, president and CEO of Iaso Therapeutics, said.

“MSU and the foundation puts its arms around companies,” Forgey said, adding Spartans Innovation’s team coaches and nurtures a start-up until they are able to walk.

At Niowave, the company has partnered with a professor at MSU who has worked in isotopes and knows the steps for pre-clinical and clinical medical testing, Zamiara said. That’s work that was normally outsourced to other firms but is now only a few miles away, he said.

Other companies will look for ways to get a product through the development process and mid-Michigan has most of those opportunities here, Zamiara said.

“That really creates an interesting critical mass that can be grown and create a lot of momentum,” Zamiara said.

Selling Greater Lansing’s potential

Ann Arbor is an example of what Greater Lansing could become, Lambert said. The University of Michigan has businesses clustered around it because of the medical schools and its research centers but is years ahead of Greater Lansing in fostering that sector, he said.

“The Lansing region has been too quiet and not nearly aggressive enough,” Trezise said. “We are now doing that.”

If LEAP gets the $1.1 million federal grant, branding will be a major component, said Victoria Meadows, LEAP’s vice president of marketing and communication. She said that effort could include targeted digital advertising, showcasing the area’s assets and giving companies a reason to pick Greater Lansing.

Beauchamp said new and growing businesses need to see the opportunity that is available in Greater Lansing. That could be MSU’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, another complementary private business or one of the hospitals, he said.

“Creating a convergence, branding it, having a place to land when they come here and then telling the world,” Beauchamp said. “That’s what we have to do. And repeat.”