St. Paul Seeking Niche As Biotech Manufacturing Research Hub

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — In a marriage of industry, academia and federal funding, Pittsburgh has doubled down on robotics research and manufacturing, helping Steel City live up to its nickname. San Antonio is tunneling into cyber-security. And Los Angeles is paving the way for computer-driven, rapid-response “smart” manufacturing.

St. Paul is poised to become a manufacturing research hub in its own right, but think lab coat, not foreman hardhat.

In October, the U.S. Department of Defense announced it would allocate $87.5 million to launch BioMADE, a non-medical bio-industrial manufacturing institute housed at the University of Minnesota College of Biological Science’s Cargill Building, as well as in new lab space that will break ground on the St. Paul campus in September.

BioMADE, the ninth nonprofit manufacturing institute sponsored by the Dept. of Defense, is expected to attract $180 million from non-federal sources and seed satellite offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Berkeley, California, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

The goal is to train up a qualified workforce and get research and design innovations over the proverbial “valley of death,” where promising technology breakthroughs tend to die for lack of scale, funding and exposure, and into the hands of the private sector for corporate investment and commercial production.

“Friends, the bio-revolution is here,” said U of M President Joan Gabel, during the nonprofit institute’s recent virtual launch event.

St. Paul, bio-industrial capital of America? For a capital city that prides itself on its century-old parks and historic landmarks, diving headlong into the sometimes strange, uncertain future of bio-technology may strike some observers as an unlikely pairing.

The metro, and east metro in particular, is better known for medical device manufacturers such as Medtronic, consumer products companies such as Ecolab and 3M, and agribusiness such as CHS, Inc.

While the University of Minnesota has maintained a biotechnology institute for decades, biotech as a private sector enterprise has just begun to gain a small foothold in St. Paul. On Empire Drive, Bio-Techne, the state’s largest biotechnology company, opened a lab facility last September where a dozen or so microbiologists cook lab-grown recombinant proteins, essential ingredients for manufacturers of new cell therapies.

The goal of BioMADE is to grow that number both locally and nationally, jumpstart research into bio-industrial manufacturing and hopefully seed a lot more companies to come.

The institute officially opened its doors with a virtual launch party on April 28 that featured pre-recorded accolades from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, U of M Board of Regents Chair Ken Powell, former chief executive officer of General Mills, and other notables from the halls of science and industry.

“This is one of the most exciting initiatives to come before the board during my tenure,” Powell said.

So what exactly is non-medical bio-industrial manufacturing?

In a nutshell, the industry engineers bacteria, yeast, algae and other biological agents that in turn create new chemical compounds and materials. Resulting products — such as plant-based biofuels — can roll out without the environmental impacts of fossil-fuel heavy traditional production.

U of M researchers, for instance, are developing anti-biocorrosion coatings for ships, and enzymes that can purify drinking water and conserve swimming pool water. Elsewhere, private companies are developing fire-resistant composite materials for the aerospace industry and films for electronic touch screens and circuit boards.

While based in St. Paul, BioMADE was proposed to the feds by the California-based Engineering Biology Research Consortium, which has ties to more than 30 companies, 33 universities, 24 community colleges and six nonprofits across 31 states. Cargill played a key role in bringing the initiative to St. Paul, as did the U of M.

Even before BioMADE was on the table, the U of M planned to break ground in September on a Microbial Cell Production Facility, which BioMADE CEO Douglas Friedman said in a statement aligns well with the nonprofit’s goals. That and additional lab space in St. Paul will be made available for private companies to scale up their projects.

Friedman said BioMADE will work with companies to determine their priorities and develop product calls, or requests for proposals, where universities can show off how they would fill those needs through their own research. BioMADE comes to the table with funding and the ability to attract more. For major corporate partners, tiered annual membership dues range from $50,000 to $1 million annually, while small labs pay as little as $1,000 and two-year colleges and educational nonprofits pay as little as $100.

“In many ways, BioMADE is the facilitator,” said Friedman during the April 28 launch. “We want companies to be able to access infrastructure when they need it, to be able to put products in and have them fail faster — yes, I said fail faster, because the faster you fail, the sooner you can move on to the next one, (and) the less investment you make.”

About 20 percent of its investments will be focused on “high-risk, high-reward results,” he said.

U of M Vice President for Research Christopher Cramer said, in a written statement, that the U.S. “bio-based economy” is thriving at $1 trillion annually, and some projections have it growing to as much as $4 trillion in worldwide impact annually over the next 10-20 years.

“This institute will ensure that this growing national industry is a key part of our Bold North economy,” Cramer said. “It will accelerate growth of our bio-industrial ecosystem, create jobs for a newly trained workforce, and add to and complement our current industries.”