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Feature

Bob Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences.

Dean Robert Elde says that nine small life science companies already lease space in CBS buildings in St. Paul. There will be room for these and more in the incubator.

Lab-based incubator aims to jumpstart biosciences in Minnesota

By Mike Peluso

From M, spring 2004

Robert Elde gets animated when he talks about what's happening today in molecular biology. The dean of the College of Biological Sciences (CBS) jumps up and grabs a well-marked copy of a recent book that describes the coming convergence of information, biology, and business.

"First, it was the manufacturing economy, then the information economy," he says, paraphrasing the authors. "Next, it's the molecular economy." And it's a coming world in which Minnesota and its only research university are playing catch-up, he adds. Elde talks with a sense of urgency about nascent efforts to build a biosciences industry in the state.

University Enterprise Laboratories (UEL) is one of those efforts. Created through a public-private partnership among the University, the city of St. Paul, and several corporate partners-led by Xcel Energy and 3M-UEL will help start-up companies struggling to survive due to a shortage of wet lab space, (where one can work with liquids and gasses.)

The U has identified more than 60 technologies that could be the basis for start-ups in the next few years. Most of those technologies are the brainchildren of faculty, and they need the ability to take their ideas to the open market. Elde, chairman of the non-profit UEL, sees it as a footbridge to the kind of biosciences industry that has taken root and accelerated in cities like San Diego and Seattle.

With nearly $8 million raised of the $9 million in private support needed to get UEL off the ground, organizers anticipate work can begin this spring in remodeling an existing building on the tramway connecting the U's Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses. UEL's labs could be providing cost-effective space for young companies late this year.

"Minnesota has to find its niche in the molecular economy," Elde says. "Right now, we're training our students for places like San Diego," where hundreds of life science companies within a three-square-mile area can track their heritage to a single company-Hybritech Inc.-born with ties to nearby higher education.

For Elde, it isn't just about faculty opportunities or the heady world of business creation. "There's real substance for the students in this," he says. The proximity of UEL to the U's Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses means job and internship opportunities for students as well as faculty entrepreneurs. "Right now our students can't get out to the suburbs to 3M or Medtronic for an internship and be back for a four o'clock lab," he says.