Pushing toward local health innovation

Pushing toward local health innovation

Van Andel Institute, which officially organized in 1996, has led a charge of medical-related development on and around Michigan Street. Photo by Justin Dawes

Just 23 years ago, the Michigan Street hill was home to nothing but Butterworth Hospital, Immanuel Lutheran Church and a bunch of old buildings.

There was no major health system, no medical school, no health sciences buildings, no research centers and no medical research scientists.

The health industry since has become the largest employer in West Michigan, arguably under the direction of a few key leaders. And the hill now known as Medical Mile has seen $2.5 billion in new infrastructure.

Some would argue it all began with one project, the catalyst: Van Andel Institute.

A new industry is born

Birgit Klohs remembers clearly the call from David Van Andel in summer 1996 that his family was going to endow a medical research and education institute.

“To be honest, I almost dropped the phone,” said Klohs, president and CEO of economic development agency The Right Place Inc.

She pumped her fist and was on board from that moment because she knew it was the birth of a new industry in West Michigan, one she said has had an immeasurable economic benefit.

“That family had just given this community a gift that was beyond any gift that we could ever expect,” Klohs said.

“It can't be measured in words, and it can't be measured in numbers because it has given us something to diversify this region that, without that first gift, would have never happened.”

Everyone wanted to know how many jobs the institute would create, Klohs said, but she knew its potential was greater than direct economic impact.

Klohs knew VAI would attract new talent — medical researchers, who before had no reason to be in the area. And she knew the work of those scientists would lead to a cluster of research institutions, higher education institutions and a stronger health care sector, leading to new business and jobs.

Not only did VAI make way for Spectrum Health and the DeVos Children’s Hospital, the MSU Medical School, the GVSU health sciences campus, the MSU research center and more on the Medical Mile, as well as the deals that formed Mercy Health and Metro Health – University of Michigan Health, but Klohs argues the downtown construction boom of apartments, hotels, restaurants and more is a result of those growing fields locally, which all started with one project.

Most advisors warned Van Andel against such a bold project, but they went ahead anyway, in honor of the institute’s founders, his parents, Jay and Betty Van Andel.

“I don't know that they had the ability to see the possibility of how big this thing has become in such a short period of time,” VAI Chairman and CEO David Van Andel said of his parents.

Establishing the institute wasn’t easy, though. There was a lot of skepticism from the community, as there was toward the Van Andel Arena and later toward the MSU medical school.

Of course, the skeptics changed their opinions after VAI’s success, which he said came from the willingness to avoid the safe route of joining another organization.

Klohs and VAI’s first director traveled to Frederick, Maryland, to convince researchers to relocate in Grand Rapids. At that point, there was no building, just an idea and a lot of money.

The handful of them that first agreed were pioneers with entrepreneurial spirits, Klohs said, uprooting their lives to build something from the ground up.

Between VAI and MSU, the number of highly paid medical research scientists has grown from 0 to more than 80 lead investigators, each with a handful of research assistants, all from more than 20 countries.

Creating a global hub

The goal is for Grand Rapids to become the Midwest’s global hub for collaborative medical research and innovation, fostering a place where scientists and companies from around the world can visit and collaborate on developing new combinations of treatments, said VAI Chief Scientific Officer Peter Jones.

This type of high-level collaboration is necessary for future cancer treatment, for example, and community leaders would like to be at the forefront of those developments.

That doesn’t necessarily mean building a physically large campus where all the necessary companies are based — which likely is not achievable anyway, Jones said. Rather, it’s about building the region’s recognition in the industry. While Grand Rapids was once known for furniture, Van Andel said he thinks it could have a health industry equally as well-known.

For Peter Jones, the underlying motivation behind it all is to improve care. That’s why he and others highlight collaboration between institutions.

“It's more important what you do than which institution you work with,” he said, “focusing on the outcome and not on your own piece of turf.”

And, he and others tout a commitment to recruiting notable scientists who do high-quality work.

“And I’m not just saying that, because I know it’s true,” said Jones, whose early work helped create the epigenetics field studied at VAI.

Some of the most impressive breakthroughs include: creating beating heart cells from skin cells, discovering that the Parkinson’s-causing protein sits in the appendix and detecting pancreatic cancer early through a simple blood test.

“The brain power that sits in those few short blocks up on the hill is pretty astounding,” Klohs said.

With MSU’s plans to expand the health campus to more quickly develop treatments using such discoveries, Dr. Norman Beauchamp, dean of the MSU College of Human Medicine, said he believes Jones’s dream could become a reality in just a few years.

"I think we're at the dawn of a very exciting era," Jones said.

The fourth prong: innovation

Beauchamp said the health industry has four prongs: education, health care, research and innovation. While medical knowledge is learned in medical school and practiced in health care, he explained, research is where the possibility for better care is discovered, and innovation is how those discoveries improve care for patients.

With the latest announcement of MSU’s innovation center plans, the hope is to fully establish the medical innovation sector, the fourth and final prong of the local health industry.

He said this will allow researchers to more easily secure funding because investors will be more confident that findings will produce business.

“That makes us ultra competitive for recruiting the best researchers from across the country,” Beauchamp said.

As the Business Journal reported late last year, MSU is planning a new building of at least 200,000 square feet along Michigan Street, just east of the MSU Grand Rapids Research Center at 400 Monroe Ave. NW.

The innovation center will contain several unannounced companies and organizations from across the country meant to collaborate on overall health care innovation, focused particularly on the young area of personalized care.

Besides the MSU College of Human Medicine, companies planning to lease space include an Israel-based artificial intelligence company; a medical device and internet of things company; a health system based in Grand Rapids; a nonprofit that does Alzheimer's work; and an organization that carries out clinical trials.

Beauchamp said one of the partner companies is bringing a way to treat cancer not currently available in the United States. This company recruited the director of a separate Germany-based company dealing with this treatment to now work in Grand Rapids and as an MSU faculty member, he said.

Beauchamp said there has been some significant interest from companies all over the world about getting involved. There recently were about two dozen health IT CEOs at a meeting organized by The Right Place discussing the campus.

Construction of the innovation center and a 600-space parking structure just to the north are slated to begin this fall and finish in fall 2021.

Though it has not yet been confirmed, a potential future development along Monroe Street, to the north of the current research building, could include additional innovation and education space, as well as conference or extended stay space for those involved in clinical trials.

The project is being built by Health Innovation Partners, a joint venture between MB Real Estate, Walsh Construction/Walsh Investors and Rockford Construction, through a long-term ground lease.

This is in addition to some relatively young efforts already happening in the area to help productize innovation.

Holland-based Genesis Innovation Group created the cultivate (MD) venture capital fund in 2014 to help fund new medical devices.

Based in the GVSU Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences building on Medical Mile, the applied Medical Device Institute (aMDI) works to move medical device ideas toward commercialization.

One company born of this growth was Grand River Aseptic Manufacturing, Klohs said. The company began with 16 people on the GVSU campus about 10 years ago and now is building a $63.5-million facility and is listed by Inc. 5000 among the fastest-growing companies in the state.

What it means for everyone else

Many of these community leaders agree that the health industry activity goes largely unrecognized by much of the public.

This must change, Jones said, because the work being done is important to everyone.

“The minute you get diagnosed with something, then all of the sudden it becomes acutely important because you want to know that somebody has discovered a therapy that can help you,” Van Andel said.

Ultimately, the innovation that comes from local research can create more types of health care, along with new educational pathways, and that’s something business people should be interested in, Beauchamp said.

Even though many people are not directly involved in the health industry’s work, Jones said they should be proud of what’s happening Grand Rapids, just like the home team at a basketball game has a cheering crowd.

"We can't do this in isolation like an ivory tower,” Jones said.

While many know there is great work happening at VAI and other institutions, Jones said the average “taxi driver” isn’t aware of exactly what is happening.

That’s why VAI has commissioned San Francisco-based Marshall Strategy to help the institute develop effective messaging to spread the word.

"By the time we get all the taxi drivers to know, we'll know we've succeeded,” Jones said.

Medical Mile and related developments


Jay and Betty Van Andel found Van Andel Institute.

David Van Andel becomes chairman and CEO.

Dr. Luis Tomatis appointed first president of Van Andel Institute.

Gordon Van Wylen appointed first director of Van Andel Education Institute.


Blodgett Memorial Medical Center and Butterworth Health Corporation merge to form Spectrum Health.


VAI facility begins construction on Medical Mile, at 333 Bostwick Ave. NE.


VAI research begins in temporary laboratory space at Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids.

Spectrum Health Renucci Hospitality House opens.


Grand Rapids Community College opens 150,000-square-foot Calkins Science Center near Medical Mile, at 226 Bostwick Ave. NE.

Phase one of VAI construction completed.


GVSU Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences opens at 301 Michigan St. NE.


New $35-million Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center opens at 100 Michigan St. NE.


VAI signs agreement with Michigan State University to support the creation of a medical school in downtown Grand Rapids.


Van Andel Institute Graduate School begins offering master’s and Ph.D. degrees.


Spectrum Health opens $78-million Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion at 145 Michigan St. NE.

Grand Rapids Women’s Health opens near Medical Mile, at 555 Midtowne St. NE.


Second phase of VAI construction completed


The $90-million MSU College of Human Medicine-Secchia Center opens at 15 Michigan St. NE


Saint Mary’s Hospital in Grand Rapids and Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon merge to form Mercy Health, owned by Trinity Health

New $286-million, 14-story Helen DeVos Children's Hospital opens at 100 Michigan St. NE


Ferris State University College of Pharmacy opens Center for Innovational Learning and Research at 25 Michigan St. NE.

MSU acquires former Grand Rapids Press site and neighboring properties for its research center.

First students graduate from VAIGS.


Peter Jones named VAI chief scientific officer and commits to a global epigenetics research hub.


VARI establishes the Van Andel Research Institute-Stand Up To Cancer Epigenetics Dream Team to foster epigenetics research collaborations and move promising therapies into clinical trials.


Metro Health merges with University of Michigan Health.


New $88.1-million MSU Grand Rapids Research Center completed at 400 Monroe Ave. NW.


GVSU opens $37.5-million, 84,000-square-foot Raleigh J. Finkelstein Hall health sciences building near Medical Mile, at 500 Lafayette Ave. NE.

GVSU begins construction of $70-million Daniel and Pamella DeVos Center for Interprofessional Health at 333 Michigan St. NE, to be finished in 2021.

MSU announces plans for innovation center east of its Grand Rapids Research Center on Medical Mile, to begin construction in fall 2019.

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