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Tech Tour Day Eight: Kalamazoo, BC Shine

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KALAMAZOO — This is, after all, the town that gave the world pills that actually work, in the 19th Century. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the endless inventiveness of the life sciences community in Kalamazoo.

And Battle Creek is, after all, the town that brought Japanese auto suppliers and their jobs to Michigan, in the 1980s. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that there is continuing strong growth of those increasingly high-tech suppliers in Fort Custer Industrial Park.

Together, the two towns provided a terrific tour de force of tech talent on Day Eight of the Great Lakes Innovation and Technology Report’s 2012 Spring Technology Tour.

The day began at a terrific restaurant with the unusual name of Food Dance and a real pioneer in biotech, Bridget Lorenz Lemberg, lab director and toxicologist at Forensic Fluids Laboratories.

Lemberg is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa. who did her undergraduate work in food sciences and animal sciences, then attended graduate school in toxicology at the University of Kentucky.

After an earlier employer went bankrupt, Lemberg perfected a reliable method of conducting drug tests using saliva, not urine.

“More than 20 labs in the country do oral fluids, but they also do urine testing, so they dabble in oral fluids,” Lemberg said. “We do it better than anybody else.”

In the test, a subject wets a pad with his or her saliva. The pad is placed in a sealed tube and bar coded by the subject himself or herself, and sealed in a tamper-resistant envelope. It’s then sent to Forensic Fluids, where it’s logged and analyzed with sophisticated scientific equipment called mass spectrometers. One standard scan is for 10 commonly abused drugs, but the company can test for literally hundreds of drugs, from synthetic marijuana to prescription drugs.

The company carefully tracks every sample with bar coding, closely enough that its “chain of custody” of samples stand up in court. And the courts are Forensic Fluids’ biggest customers, testing people who have been ordered to stay clean.

The company now has 36 employees, and its revenue is projected to grow from $5.6 million last year to around $10 million this year. Its offices are in 9,000 square feet of the former headquarters of the Gibson guitar company on Kalamazoo’s north side, including a room paneled in every kind of wood Gibson ever used to make guitars.

So what’s better about testing for drugs and other chemicals with oral fluids rather than urine?

“It’s quick, easy, simple, dignified, and no special facilities are needed,” Lemberg said. “And it’s the most accurate drug testing you can get … And because you can’t cheat on it. We watch you put the stick in your mouth. Most people aren’t going to watch you pee in a cup.”

Indeed, cheating in urine testing is rampant — Lemberg showed me an ad in High Times magazine for an artificial penis extension in which a clean sample from someone else could be stored.

“There’s a huge industry to adulterate urine testing,” Lemberg said.

Lemberg’s big growth target is the Detroit area in Michigan. She just got work in Macomb County and is shooting for Oakland. For now, most of the company’s work is for courts in Indiana, Ohio and outstate Michigan.

More at www.forensicfluids.com.

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From Forensic Fluids, it was on to another life sciences center, the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center, a 69,000-square-foot business incubator and accelerator which provides comprehensive support and assistance to life sciences startups.

Robert DeWit, president and CEO of the SMIC, said things are going well at the center. Some companies have graduated, freeing up some square footage for new tenants — the center’s lab space is now about 75 percent full, though its office space is more like 98 percent occupied, DeWit said. DeWit also said he can tell the economy’s getting better because tenants have stopped asking for renegotiation of rental agreement, and because “the number of packages I see at the loading dock everyday has increased tenfold from two years ago.”

The SMIC is currently home to 16 companies, including some I’ve covered before — Vestaron Inc., a company developing insecticides based on chemicals in spider venom; NephRx, a company developing novel treatments for kidney failure; ProNai, a company with a novel approach to fighting cancer. There are also four successful graduates of the SMIC with their own offices in the area.

DeWit showed me the SMIC’s latest addition, the Michigan Core Life Sciences Laboratory, the product of a $100,000 grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and other community support.

The lab contains mass spectrometers, sophisticated centrifuges, microscopes, cytometers (cell measurement and analysis devices), laboratory-grade freezers, high-temperature sterilizers, blood-temperature experiment incubators, and more.

The new lab is run by Greg Cavey, a former scientific investigator at the Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids.

“We saw a need for people who can’t afford a full rental unit and equipment that goes into setting up a lab,” Cavey said. “So we modeled the core lab after an incubator out West that had equpment in it that people could access.”

More at www.kazoosmic.com/michigan-core-life-science-laboratory.php.

Rolf Kletziem, vice president of research and co-founder at SMIC tenant Metabolic Solutions, said he really could have used something like the core lab when the company was four feet of bench space at Western Michigan University’s Haenicke Hall.

“The idea of the core lab came out of experience of starting a company,” Kletziem said. “People run away when you ask them for funding to establish a laboratory. But if you can at least point to a laboratory, a home address, there’s all sorts of things that open up in terms of foundation funding, federal funding, state funding. But no one wants to help you build a lab. That lab could have jump started what we did.”

Metabolic Solutions is studying new drugs for diabetes, drugs that also show promise in helping with brain and nerve damage and kidney disease.

The SMIC is a good example of the concentration of pharma talent in Kalamazoo, where Upjohn Co. was born, and where Pfizer Inc.’s downsizings left behind a core of pharma researchers looking for new challenges.

“Pharma is a global enterprise, but the thing is, right here in the Kalamazoo area, we can go from chemist’s bench to phase II, and that’s very unusual,” DeWit said. “And the thing is, we all know each other. So we can get things done with a phone call that in other places would take weeks of trying to set up a meeting. When I call someone, they understand I have already done some level of vetting.”

I wrapped up my Kalamazoo visit with a conversation with Harry Ledebur of Axonia Medical, a pharma startup so new it does not yet have an office outside a university.

All Axonia can do, Ledebur said, is “make nervous tissue. We are the only people in the world that are making nervous tissue. And we think this will be able to do some very interesting things.”

Ledebur said Axonia is working on treatments for peripheral nerve damage — motor and sensory function deficits like erectile dysfunction after prostate surgery or facial paralysis after dental surgery. Those injuries also take place in accidents, Ledebur noted.

The company is based on University of Pennsylvania research and is based in Kalamazoo because of an investment by Southwest Michigan First. Ledebur said the company’s products could be in human trials by 2014.

“We can help what is currently untreatable,” Ledebur said.

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After that little mind-blowing claim, it was into the Tech Tour Mobile — still loving my 2012 Ford Focus and its MyFord Touch technology, by the way — for the quick jaunt one county east to Battle Creek.

My first stop was the Downtown Battle Creek Partnership and Cheryl L. Beard, director of commercial development, where I got a firsthand look at a $7 million restoration of the Cereal City’s three-block downtown into a pedestrian-friendly showplace of unique restaurants, nightlife and shops. Everything from the building face on one side of the street to the building face on the other has been replaced — roads, curbs, water mains, sidewalks, planters, trash receptacles, flower boxes, signage and street lights. Gathering places and parks are being added.

The Battle Creek Public Schools has also purchased the former downtown cereal industry museum, which is being rebuilt into a new math and science center.

And the Global Food Protection Institute continues to grow. Seeded with funding from Kellogg Co. and a $1.3 million-a-year grant from the Food and Drug Administration, the GFPI held its first course in August 2009 and has now trained more than 2,000 people in keeping food safe. Joan G. Bowman, vice president of external affairs, said the food safety modernization law signed by President Obama in January 2011 has sparked global interest in food safety.

The institute currently has 15 employees and four open positions for instructional designers and curriculum directors.

The institute is also creating an “emerging technology accelerator” to link entrepreneurs and investors in food protection technologies. Eventually, Bowman said, the institute would like to operate a physical business incubator for the industry. It’s already sponsoring a food protection technology award in the Great Lakes Entrepreneurs Quest business plan competition.

And the institute has also conducted its first conference in Battle Creek, “IMagined Food Futures,” to talk about global food systems. Conferences are planned for later this year in Fairfield, Va. on combating food allergens, and in Chicago on food transportation issues.

All this activity has spawned $87 million in private investment, Jones said, from Kellogg, food testing lab Covance, real estate developers Hinman, the McKinley Plaza Hotel, and smaller companies. All told, downtown Battle Creek has attracted 950 new jobs since a “transformation plan” was announced for the formerly moribund downtown in 2008.

It’s not moribund now. A stroll on an absurdly beautiful spring day revealed new shops and terrific nightspots, not to mention a former insurance headquarters converted to offices and residential space. And a really good restaurant, Malia, where I ended my trip to battle creek with lunch with Karl Dehn, president and CEO of Battle Creek Unlimited, the local economic development agency.

Dehn stepped into the shoes of legendary economic leader James Hettinger in January 2009, and has ably continued Hettinger’s work in putting Battle Creek on the global economic map. He told me three companies in the massive Fort Custer industrial park, all Japanese auto suppliers, are in significant expansion mode.

But the city still has plenty of land available if you’d like to join them — 500 acres left in the industrial park, 400 acres of city-owned land nearby, and another 100 acres at the Air National Guard base and airport with its 10,000-foot runway.

Dehn said the downtown revitalization is helping to sell the industrial park, recalling one snowy night last winter (hey, there were a few) when a factory-site prospect was impressed by a packed weeknight crowd at Malia and a couple of nearby taverns.

Dehn also gave me a first-person account of a strong entrepreneurship education program offered to area high school students by an organization called Generation E.

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And after that wonderful lunch I left Battle Creek, and I’m looking forward to wrapping up the Tech Tour in Michigan’s capital city, Lansing. Sounds capital!

Be sure to listen to WWJ Newsradio 950 for special reports on the GLITR 2012 Spring Tech Tour. And check out photos from the Tech Tour road at http://detroit.cbslocal.com/photo-galleries/2012/05/11/glitr-spring-tech-tour-2012/#photo-323016.

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