Van Andel Institute has become a huge success and feather in Grand Rapids’ cap, but it was a gamble that could just as easily have failed.
“When we started VAI back in 1996, we had nothing, only an idea, so for the first four years, it was putting together the plan, building the building and hiring,” said David Van Andel, VAI chairman and CEO.
In fact, Van Andel said VAI’s board of scientific advisors thought it might be a bad decision to move forward with the institute.
“Our board of scientific advisors wasn’t sure it was a good decision, because there was none of the normal infrastructure residing here,” he said. “It was not on a university campus, there was no big life sciences presence here.”
Dr. Peter Jones, Van Andel Research Institute’s chief scientific officer, added, “I think the first thing is to realize it’s a remarkable achievement to have gotten VAI to where it is today. To take a piece of ground and convert it into a world-famous institute is a huge achievement.”
Jones said VAI, which is composed of the Van Andel Research Institute and Van Andel Education Institute, has succeeded in becoming a hub for life sciences and is competitive with other life science hubs, such as Boston, in attracting talented scientists to the region.
Part of that has to do with the vision of Van Andel’s parents, Jay and Betty Van Andel, when they backed the institute to make West Michigan part of a statewide life sciences corridor.
“We tied four institutions together — ourselves, Michigan State University, University of Michigan and Wayne State — to collaborate on life sciences-related issues, to collaborate as a corridor,” Van Andel said.
“We sought out and were instrumental in getting Michigan State University College of Human Medicine to relocate to Grand Rapids. As a result of the decisions in the last 15-plus years, building in different infrastructure, we’ve begun to attract a whole different level of individuals to populate those buildings.
“Medical school students to the lab techs in our labs to doctors who want to have a clinical piece; they can practice at the local hospitals. All of that has happened as a result of us initially making the decision to be located here.”
Another factor in VAI’s success has been its recruitment of Jones and his leadership in focusing the institute’s work on epigenetics, which Jones said has been “in the shadow of genetics” for the past 50 years and now is “poised to go mainstream.”
“The idea is that it isn’t just the genes themselves, which is genetics, but how the genes are controlled that can give rise to disease, give rise to normal or abnormal behavior,” Jones said.
VAI essentially has spent its first 20 years proving it could be a life science hub, building in the supporting infrastructure as it evolved, and now in the next several years, the institute will focus on working with its many partners to grow the infrastructure necessary to attract an even larger breadth of talent to Grand Rapids.
“One of the driving things now is to be able to work with Michigan State University and its medical school to make Grand Rapids more of a scientific center, particularly in medicine and particularly for epigenetics,” Jones said. “It’s a big opportunity.”
Recruiting is one of Jones’ key objectives for the next five years.
“We are trying to recruit five rising stars, people at the cusp of making great discoveries,” he said.
Jones explained, “If you were developing the next Facebook, you’d go to Silicon Valley. If you were in stocks and bonds, you’d go to NYC. If you want to make office furniture, you come here. There is a reason that happens. People of like aspirations and expertise congregate together, and that is what we are hoping to do here. If you want to do epigenetics, you’ll come to Grand Rapids.
“We have a very aggressive growth plan with five rising stars, and they will bring an entourage with them.”
Jones said infrastructure is vital for VAI going forward.
“You need to have scientists here, the core resources, it takes a huge amount of computational power, and we can do that here,” he said. “I think we are already there, and we can compete, but we are going from good to great.”
He added, “The most important thing is the intellectual atmosphere, a spirit of inquiry and a spirit of the very best brains in the country.”
He said a new $10 million microscope is an example of how VAI is attracting the talented individuals it needs.
“We have the world’s most advanced cryo-electron microscope here in Grand Rapids,” Jones said. “It’s being installed as we speak. So, we will have the structural biology component here that allows us to look at the structures of things at the very basic level but also at the human being level.”
Jones said VAI has structural biology experts already in place who will benefit from the new microscope.
He also noted one of the key factors that made building the VAI in Grand Rapids a big risk also is one of the reasons it’s succeeded.
“It may seem silly, but normally institutions have walls,” he said. “A university would collaborate with other people, but it would focus its attention and resources on its own faculty primarily.
“We do focus on our own faculty and recruit new people, but also, because we are small and nimble, we work with institutes around the world, such as Johns Hopkins University, Rush University, Stand Up to Cancer and The Cure Parkinson’s Trust. We work with them and help support them.”
Earlier this year, VAI had a big win with research it was doing related to leukemia and preleukemia.
“The observation is that one of the key drugs used to treat a particular kind of leukemia or preleukemia, actually works better if, at least in tissue culture, the level of vitamin C is at the correct level, the normal level, for what is found in the population,” he said.
“That is a lab discovery. How do you get that tested on people? Because we have the Stand Up To Cancer team, we were able to rapidly put up a trial in Copenhagen.”
Jones said cancer patients are often deficient in vitamin C.
“They have virtually no vitamin C in their blood,” he said.
The trial could be done quick and nimbly, Jones said, noting that is unique.
“It’s that ability to put the things together, which is really what marks our institute,” he said. “We don’t only do the stuff inside, but we have the resources to actually fund the work to be done somewhere else quickly, and we focus on the patients.”
Van Andel said, “Our goal has always been from the science side to impact human health, and I’ve always felt that one of the best ways we can impact human health is through translational science. That is taking the bench science we developed in the lab and translating it to something useful that can be used by a doctor and patient. You do it through clinical trials and the application of the things we discover into a real-life situation.
“My hope and goal in the next five to 10 years is to develop a thriving clinical piece to go along with our bench science, and we are beginning to do some of that right now.”
Jones said going forward, VAI specifically will work with drug companies to bring new findings, such as the vitamin C discovery, to patients.
“There are companies that have invested billions in developing drugs but don’t know the best combinations,” he said. “Almost all of the cancer therapies of the future are almost certainly going to be combinations of drugs.”
He said VAI’s place in drug development is in serving as a broker between the large and small drug companies.
Jones said VAI also will continue to court federal funding. He said the trajectory of the institute’s ability to attract federal funding is among its successes.
“In 2014, the total money coming from the federal government was $3 million to this institute, now it’s up to $9 million. So, we tripled our grant funding and that is really important, because that brings money into Michigan and Grand Rapids. That is one thing we are doing, very aggressively courting federal funding to support our activities.”
While it’s a small number compared to what the University of Michigan receives, Jones said what makes it successful is the rate of growth.
He also said VAI is going toe-to-toe with Texas in its efforts to recruit talent.
“The state of Texas has invested $300 million a year for 10 years to recruit great scientists into Texas and to support research in Texas,” he said. “We are trying to compete. We want to give packages to scientists that are better than they’d get going to Texas. Now, we can’t do the number, but we can do the quality.”
He noted VAI has the second largest endowment for a private institute in the world.
“It’s huge,” he said.
He said the University of Oregon’s $500 million endowment is only a third of what VAI received from the Van Andel family.
“I think the neatest thing for me is what started as simply a dream of my parents to say, ‘Let’s go do a medical research institute;’ I’ve been able to take that idea and, with lots of help, develop it into what we see today, and that has been a thriving piece of West Michigan’s infrastructure,” Van Andel said. “It’s exciting to see it develop from scratch to what it is today.”