The University of Michigan’s North Campus Research Complex is — well, right now, it’s kind of creepy.
The 174-acre site with 2.1 million square feet of office and lab space was once the home of drug research for pharma giant Pfizer Inc. — and before that, Detroit-born Parke-Davis, as some of the signs in the building still attest. The university bought it in late 2008 for the bargain-basement price of $108 million.
And Friday, while attending the Accelerate Michigan business plan competition, I had some time to just wander around. (Okay, I’m a reporter, I’m nosy by nature.)
First off, this place is ENORMOUS. I walked about as far as I wanted to — I was afraid I’d get lost or set off an alarm or maybe both if I went any further — and I saw literally hundreds of empty offices and cubicle farm rooms, and tens of thousands of square feet of perfectly well-equipped wet lab space with everything you’d need to set up a science or medical laboratory (well, except the glassware and the staff).
The architecture is vintage ’60s or ’70s, lots of aluminum and white stucco outside with lots of wood paneling inside, flat-roofed, a little Prairie School-meets-serious-place-of-science. It’s elegant in spots, but also disturbingly sterile, like a Stanley Kubrick movie set, a little too clean and a little too bright.
Maybe that’s because all the furniture is still there but the people are gone, giving it a vibe like one of those post-apocalyptic movies, after the plague or the H-bomb radiation, or like that TV show “Life After People.”
So what the heck is U of M going to DO with this gigantic place? When might it be even half full, and with what?
An MBA student I met similarly wandering around told me word is that about half the building will imply be turned over to students and professors to launch businesses. This is a TERRIFIC IDEA. It’s too bad for the city that this colossal complex is off the property tax rolls, but it’s great for the state of Michigan that a world-class university now owns the joint. As a fellow conference goer said, we may just look back decades from now and say that the best thing ever to happen to Ann Arbor was for Pfizer to move out and the U of M to move in.
The NCRC’s executive director, David Canter, detailed some of the ongoing progress at the NCRC last fall. (The presentation is online at http://www.umncrc.org./.) For one thing, he said more than 400 people have already moved in — not that you’d know it, the complex is so huge. Included are the university’s Business Engagement Center and Office of Tech Transfer. Those groups indeed plan to establish a venture accelerator, which will provide office and laboratory space, as well as business services, for UM startup companies.
Canter’s presentation also said five UM lab-based research clusters plan to move into NCRC
* Translational Oncology: Investigators from the Medical School and College of Pharmacy will collaborate on development of targeted cancer therapies.
* Cardiovascular Research: Investigators from the Medical School’s Center for Arrhythmia Research Group, Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, and departments of Surgery, Molecular and Integrative Physiology, and Cell and Development Biology, as well as the College of Engineering, will focus on cardiac rhythm and muscle function.
* Distributed Health Technologies: A cross-disciplinary team from the Medical School, College of Engineering, the School of Public Health and commercial manufacturing will focus on developing advanced low-cost technologies for individual health care.
* Interdisciplinary Energy Hub: Investigators from the College of Engineering and the School of Natural Resources and Environment will work to create a state-of-the-art demonstration of transformative and sustainable energy technologies.
* Biointerfaces: An interdisciplinary mix of nanotechnology, microfluidics and sensors, cell and tissue engineering, and biomaterials and drug delivery.
Within two years, Canter said the university plans to have more than 1,000 people in the complex. That’s about half what Pfizer had there when they decided to move out. And within three years, the NCRC will be home to new imaging equipment, a clinical research unit and classrooms.
Well, that’ll be great. But for now, well, you wouldn’t be surprised to see Will Smith and his dog from “I Am Legend” around the place.
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