September 9, 2010/Detroit Free Press
By Katherine Yung
More than three years after Pfizer announced the closing of its massive pharmaceutical research campus in Ann Arbor, the 174-acre property is springing back to life, with grand ambitions for boosting southeast Michigan's economy.
The University of Michigan is in the midst of transforming the land and its 28 buildings into a next-generation research hub where scientists, engineers and others will work closely with local businesses.
Start-ups spun off from this kind of collaborative research will be located at a new business accelerator that is to help them grow.
And in a first for the university, established, for-profit companies will be allowed to move into the facilities.
"The North Campus Research Complex represents an opportunity to do something different," said David Canter, the campus' executive director. "Just filling up space is not the mission."
The university is projecting that all of this activity will eventually result in 2,000 to 3,000 new jobs employing everyone from scientists and health care experts to business professionals.
Pfizer had 2,100 workers when it decided to shut down its operations in Ann Arbor.
"This is probably the best outcome we could have expected," said Michael Finney, CEO and president of the economic development group Ann Arbor SPARK. "The site is ultimately going to become a great resource for our region."
U-M expects site won't be one more research park
When the University of Michigan purchased Pfizer's former research campus in Ann Arbor in June 2009, it instantly gained hundreds of laboratories, 420,000 square feet of office space, a drug manufacturing facility, a water plant, modern conference rooms and 2,800 parking spaces.The $108-million acquisition seemed a natural fit for a school that spent a billion dollars on research last year alone and was running out of space. So it's no surprise that U-M is making use of its biggest property acquisition in 60 years.By year's end, 45% of the office space at its new North Campus Research Complex, also called NCRC, will be occupied by more than 500 people, according to David Canter, director of the campus and the former head of Pfizer's Michigan operations. By December 2011, all of the site's offices are expected to be filled.
At the end of this month, the university's Tech Transfer office and Business Engagement Center will move to the campus. U-M has also leased out one of the NCRC's 28 buildings, a specialized chemistry lab, to BoroPharm, a Michigan State University spinoff company that makes chemical compounds.More companies are likely to move into other buildings next year, including possibly some firms started by ex-Pfizer employees, Canter said.He is leading the effort to ensure that the NCRC doesn't evolve into just another university research park. U-M envisions the 2-million-square-foot campus becoming a catalyst for innovation in the region, with cutting-edge research spawning discoveries that lead to the formation of new businesses."How can we translate research not just from the lab to a scientific paper but to a useful therapeutic diagnostic aid?" Canter asked.
Four initial focuses
So far, U-M has identified four initial areas researchers at the NCRC will focus on: cancer therapies, cardiovascular research, energy technologies and low-cost technologies for individual health care.The university currently spins off about 10 companies a year from research conducted by its professors, according to Kenneth Nisbet, executive director of U-M's Office of Technology Transfer.This activity is likely to increase because the university plans to open a new business accelerator at the NCRC, its first in many years. The accelerator will provide start-up companies formed from university research projects with the office and laboratory space and business services they need to grow.U-M has 60 to 70 potential start-up companies in its pipeline, and some of them could take advantage of the accelerator, Nisbet said.The accelerator is just one of what is likely to be many different projects at the NCRC. Of the 174 acres that the university acquired, 90 are vacant, giving the school plenty of room for expansion.When Pfizer sold its Ann Arbor campus, it left behind office furniture and millions of dollars in equipment. So far, the university has spent $1.8 million on renovations in four buildings. All of the buildings on the campus look alike on the outside and are connected to each other.
The campus' giant cafeteria, with its sound-absorbing ceiling and carpet, has already been used for several public events. Filming for three movies -- "Trust," "Salvation Boulevard" and "The Double" -- has also occurred there.
Back to its roots
Ironically, the NCRC is returning to its roots by joining U-M. The property was originally part of 300 acres that the university purchased in 1950 in order to build what is today known as its North Campus.In 1957, U-M sold some of this land to the pharmaceutical company Parke-Davis, forming the foundation for today's NCRC. Parke-Davis was later acquired by Warner Lambert, which in 2000 became part of Pfizer. For Canter, returning to Pfizer's former campus where he worked for more than 20 years seemed surreal at first. But few people know the property better than this scientist, who can tell you everything from the age of each building to the location of all the power generators. "I know the buildings by heart," he said.