Even before the automobile industry made Michigan famous, chemical and drug pioneers set up shop in the state. In 1898, Herbert Dow began making bleach in Midland, and by 1916, Dow also produced acetylsalicyclic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. Dow Chemical Co., grew to become one of the world's greatest producers of chemical products.
Kalamazoo was the home of the Upjohn Company more than 100 years ago. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, Upjohn became Pharmacia & Upjohn, then Pharmacia, and now belongs to Pfizer.
Kalamazoo also is the home of Stryker Instruments, started in the 1940s by Homer Stryker, a local orthopedic surgeon. Today, Stryker is one of the world's leaders in the medical device industry. The former headquarters of the Parke-Davis division of Warner Lambert are found in Ann Arbor, and also are owned by Pfizer.
This rich history of pharmaceutical and chemical success stories forms a foundation for current life sciences start-ups. About 160 companies are members of the Michigan Biosciences Industry Association (www.michbio.org).
"About 100 start-ups formed in the last five years are in various stages of maturity," says Michael Witt, executive director of MichBio. The first new companies generally were spinoffs of discoveries made at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where about 50 life science firms operate today.
Although Ann Arbor receives credit for launching the modern life sciences industry, the area lacks incubator space to nurture them. "It's an anomaly," says Michael Long, Ph.D., founder, president, and CEO of Velcura Therapeutics (www.velcura.com) in Ann Arbor.
"We found our own space, built our own benches, and bought our own equipment. An incubator certainly would have been cheaper," adds Dr. Long. The Ann Arbor community is starting to address the need for incubator space.
In Kalamazoo, scientists who once worked for Pharmacia have launched several new companies. When Pfizer acquired Pharmacia in 2003, some scientists chose to stay in Michigan, rather than relocate to other Pfizer sites. The types of companies sprouting up in Kalamazoo differ from those in Ann Arbor, where researchers often seek to discover new drugs or therapeutics.
Such discovery-based companies tend to sell out, if successful, or are absorbed by larger firms. In contrast, service-oriented companies are forming around Kalamazoo, and they offer expertise in analytical chemistry, medicinal chemistry, toxicology, and high throughput screening skills.
"These companies plan to stay in business and create jobs," says Robert Gadwood, Ph.D., a former Pharmacia scientist and co-founder and president of Kalexsyn (www. kalexsyn.com) in Kalamazoo.
New companies in the Kalamazoo area are aided by the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center, a life sciences incubator located at Western Michigan University (WMU), and run by Southwest Michigan First, a local economic development group.
To retain the brain power of former Pharmacia scientists, in 2003 the state of Michigan established the Bioscience Research and Commercialization Center (BBRC) at WMU. BBRC "funds start-ups and finds equipment, consulting services, and business services," says Matt Kurz, associate vp of university relations at WMU.
The BBRC has funded nine companies located in the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center, and former Pharmacia scientists launched eight of them.
The life sciences industry "is flourishing in Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, and it's starting to blossom in Grand Rapids," says Tim Damon, managing director of business marketing at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) in Lansing.
In 1999, the state government established the Michigan Life Sciences Corridor with income derived from the settlement of Michigan's suit against tobacco companies. MEDC administers the funds. The widely successful program "has funded up to 100 companies," says Damon.
Promoters of the life sciences industry in Grand Rapids are out to attract medical device companies. "Grand Rapids traditionally has been a manufacturing center and the expertise in some areas, like injecting plastics, extends well to medical devices," says Matt Dugener, executive director of the West Michigan Science & Technology Initiative at Grand Valley State University.
For instance, Avalon Laboratories, a manufacturer of heart cannulae, is located in Grand Rapids.
Overall, the life sciences industry in Michigan employs about 32,000 people, and has grown 27% in employment and 32% in number of companies since 2000. Some representative companies are described here.